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Sci-Tech

NASA aims for air traffic control system for commercial drones

Agency seeks partners for a multi-year project to develop a protocol the FAA can implement for the safe commercial use of drones in the U.S.

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Scripps Institution of Oceanography development engineer Evan Walsh launches a drone in Palau in April as part of an effort to locate American servicemen lost in action in World War II. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

NASA has launched an initiative aimed at developing a traffic management program for the commercial use of drones, much like standard air traffic control manages airspace for commercial aviation.

The multi-year program is essential because commercial use of such devices -- quadcopters, octocopters, and other remote-controlled aircraft -- is currently banned in the United States by the Federal Aviation Administration.

That means that even as more and more individuals are legally flying consumer-grade unmanned aerial systems (UAS), known colloquially as drones, from companies like Parrot, DJI, and 3D Robotics, high-profile commercial efforts like Amazon's announced plan to use the devices to deliver packages are currently grounded.

But now NASA is looking to help the FAA come up with a regimen known as a UAS traffic management system. The goal of the program is to find a way to safely manage the simultaneous low-altitude use -- from ground level up to 400 or 500 feet -- of these devices by multiple companies or institutions.

Among the first partners helping the space agency create the program is Airware, a San Francisco developer of drone operating software. In an interview, Jesse Kallman, Airware's head of business development and regulatory affairs, said he'd been working with Parimal Kopardekar, the NASA principal investigator who is developing and managing the new program, since spring.

Part of the problem, Kallman said, is that there is currently no universal system meant to ensure the safety of those on the ground, as well as those in airplanes and helicopters, as drone pilots deal with situations like lost communications with their devices or lost power due to dead batteries. Among other things, the NASA effort will aim for a way to ensure the safe return to the ground of drones in such cases.

Though it's the FAA that manages aircraft in the United States, NASA frequently works hand in hand with the FAA on technology transfer. "They do all kinds of research on manned aviation," Kallman said of NASA. "They spend their efforts on refining technology and they will transfer that technology over to the FAA to implement."

Kallman acknowledged that the new effort will not be complete for perhaps four or five years, or even longer. That's because, he said, there are many things to research, and a large number of different vehicles, and on-board sensors, to manage. Among the goals researchers want to achieve is finding a way for commercial drones to autonomously space themselves in the air -- meaning flying safe distances from each other and from structures or manned aircraft.

Ultimately, he added, the hope is that commercial drone operators can file a flight plan and be certain that no one else will be flying a device through the same space at the same time -- much as the manned air traffic management system ensures.

In a talk yesterday at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco, NASA's Kopardekar said that the increasing popularity of drones necessitates a common infrastructure, much as autonomous cars still need roads. "The same thing will happen in the sky," Kopardekar said, adding that NASA will eventually hand over its UAS traffic management system to the FAA. "It's up to them to decide who operates in the airspace."

In a federal notice soliciting partners for the program, NASA wrote that, "The final product of these tests will result in a working prototype [UAS traffic management] system and documentation of results that demonstrate how the low-altitude airspace and UAS operations could be safely enabled for the entire stakeholder community and national benefit."

In the early stages, Kallman said, there would likely be some manual oversight of drones, with "humans in the loop" to monitor flights and grant approvals. As an example, he said, after a natural disaster, a traffic management monitor could take charge of drones brought in to help map a stricken area and search for victims.

But in the future, the idea is that the system would be automated, with no need for human intervention. "It will know who has access to the airspace," Kallman said, "and when."

Airware, of course, isn't NASA's only partner. The agency recently said it has been working with Google on the search giant's newest initiative, known as Project Wing. As part of that effort, Google has been testing making deliveries in Australia of things such as candy bars, cattle vaccines, water, and radios. The system works much like Google's self-driving car, albeit in the air: the drones fly a pre-determined route at the push of a button. Google said it will be several years before the effort is ready for commercial use.

As for its own work with NASA, Airware is setting up the agency with some of its partners since, as an operating software developer, it doesn't make the drones themselves. Any standard that comes out of the NASA effort, Kallman said, would have to work with "our ecosystem of compatible hardware and software vendors, and different types of sensors, cameras, and collision avoidance systems."

Still, though the program won't be completed for years, Kallman expects elements of the work to emerge into the commercial world in the interim -- "things like integrating new types of hardware and software, or collision avoidance."