Commercial Drones Getting Their Own Air Traffic Control System

Create: 07/06/2017 - 17:54
Drone traffic control

Photo: Intel/Falcon 8+ System


Drones are starting to fly the open sky in droves, as manufacturers, governments and businesses discover new ways to put drones to work.  This broad range of opportunities is reflected in rapid market growth. The FAA estimates that by 2020 7 million drones could be whizzing around the United States. That’s a whole lot of new activity in the air.

The upside for the commercial use of drones is big, with PricewaterhouseCoopers putting the 2016 global market value for commercial applications of drone technology at over $127 billion. But, balancing profitability with safety and efficiency is key to maximizing the long-term commercial economic value drones hold. A responsible eye needs to be kept on protecting both people and property.

How do you make sure drones deliver on the good—satisfying customers while making and saving businesses more money—while avoiding the possible negative consequences? It’s easy to see how 7 million drones could wreak havoc if not properly managed, potentially creating seriously dangerous mid-air collisions—not just with other drones, but also with passenger aircrafts. 

What’s needed is a scalable, flexible and secure traffic system that can enable millions of drone operators to safely use their devices at the same time. Fortunately, the development of such a system is already underway.

Getting Smart about Managing Drone Air Traffic

Parimal Kopardekar, principal investigator at NASA for unmanned aerial systems traffic management, has created an unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) traffic management (UTM) system to help avoid the dangerous collisions that could be caused by quickly multiplying drone traffic.

Drone flight traffic control

Photo: Intel iQ

This traffic will be particularly concerning once regulations give the green light to drones flying beyond the line of sight. While current drone users are relying on their own eyes to avoid crashes—as stipulated in the FAA’s most recent guidelines—as soon as they are allowed to venture beyond the line of sight, having electronic tracking will be of paramount importance.

Fueling Innovation Through Cooperation

An extensive list of industry partners has joined forces with the FAA and NASA, investigating the requirements necessary to determine and establish an effective and reliable drone traffic management system—with an autonomous system being the ultimate goal.

Similar to how the Department of Transportation outlined safety guidelines for self-driving cars but left it to companies to create and refine solutions and products, the FAA is leveraging the innovation of private enterprises to tackle the challenge of balancing flight efficiency and safety within the potential commercial drone super-skyway. The goal is to conclude research by 2019 and submit ideas for the FAA to implement by 2025.

Innovation in Action

In early June of this year, Alphabet’s Project Wing, Intel and Virginia Tech performed multiple exercises to test a drone delivery traffic system being created by the Project Wing team.

James Ryan Burgess, the co-lead of Project Wing, had his team test its UTM platform at an FAA site run by the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership. Piloted by a single Wing operator, the Three Wing aircraft performed package pickup and delivery missions in the same area where MAPP flew a DJI Inspire on an automated search and rescue mission and Intel was piloting two Intel Aero Ready to Fly Drones.

These are the kinds of projects the FAA is depending on to create a system that will reach flight efficiency and safety goals. Alphabet’s air traffic control system was able to successfully re-route the drones to avoid collisions in real-time—an extremely promising result. Next on the agenda, scale it up big time.

Using Smart Drones

If you and your customers are ready for takeoff in the drone market, watch the video to learn more the Intel Aero Ready to Fly Drone that includes the Intel Aero Compute Board and the Intel RealSense™ R200 camera.

About Author

Patricia Schnaidt
Patricia Schnaidt is an expert business technology writer. She has held top publishing and editorial positions at InternetWeek, Network Computing, Windows Magazine and LAN Magazine. Schnaidt has written countless articles, lectured extensively, and authored "Enterprise-wide Networking" (Prentice-Hall). She holds a B.A. in Computer Science from Columbia College, Columbia University.

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