NASA and Verizon working to create unmanned aircraft traffic management system for radio-controlled drones

Jun 04, 2015 10:00 pm
[caption width="330" align="alignright"] A DJI Phantom radio-controlled drone. Photo from Wikipedia.[/caption]Mark Harris in The Guardian reported June 3 that Verizon and NASA are developing an air traffic control network for America's radio-controlled drones, with cell phone towers monitoring the small aircraft. The Guardian obtained documents that say Verizon signed an agreement last year with NASA, “to jointly explore whether cell towers … could support communications and surveillance of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) at low altitudes.” So far there's just a half million dollars invested in the project at NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. Verizon will use cell coverage for data, navigation, surveillance, and tracking of drones by 2017, with the first tests of unmanned aircraft system traffic management this summer. Currently, drones can fly anywhere, but NASA hopes to “geo-fence” radio-controlled drones to keep them away from military bases, airports, the White House, and other locations. The network would also help drone operators avoid mountains and buildings, and create a priority system in crowded airspaces. Currently, anyone can fly a drone, but in February the Federal Aviation Administration released proposals for regulating commercial drones, with aircraft up to 55lb allowed to fly within sight of their remote pilots during daylight hours at heights below 500 feet and at speeds of less than 100 mph. “The problem is that we really cannot add any more capacity to the regular air traffic control system,” says Missy Cummings, professor of aeronautics at Duke University. “Radar coverage at low altitude is very spotty, and we don’t have the technology or the people to put a tracking device on each drone.” NASA may also use orbiting satellites and cellphone signals to monitor drone locations. “I don’t see a privacy problem with leveraging cell towers,” says Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington who specializes in robots. “If a centralised place is keeping track of these things, we would have some accountability. I don’t believe anybody thinks we should have anonymous drones the way we should have anonymous web surfing.”