By Kevin Closson, M.S., MBA, Nerac Analyst,
Originally Published: November 21st, 2014
The civilian and commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or “drones” as they are often called, is a hot topic. Google, Amazon and many others have made announcements about their UAV programs and plans. Talk of UAVs has moved beyond hobbyist and technical circles into the popular vernacular.
Though the US Federal Aviation Administration has yet to promulgate its rules for civilian and commercial use of UAVs (it’s under congressional mandate to do so by the end of 2015), the market isn’t waiting. Despite the fact that doing so is technically illegal in most cases, people throughout the US are flying UAVs today. The FAA itself forecasts no fewer than 7,500 small (under 55 pounds) UAVs will be flying in the US by 2018.
Integrating UAVs into the National Air Space (NAS) will be no small task and it remains to be seen how the FAA will tackle the problem. Nevertheless, one of the major issues is safety. An important aspect of safely integrating UAVs is the possible need for an air traffic control system capable of including these aircraft.
One start-up, Airware, hopes to address the problem by using the nation’s system of cellular phone towers. Teaming with NASA on an experimental program, the company hopes to develop an air traffic control system for drones.
The four-year program starts simply. In the first phase, Airware will develop a cloud-based system to allow UAV operators to file flight plans for approval. The system will de-conflict plans and integrate known issues with weather and obstacles.
In later phases, the program will evolve into using cellular data transceivers to communicate. The system would operate in real-time, automatically acknowledging UAVs entering into the system and giving them commands to avoid collisions.
Such a system would address one of the big obstacles to commercial UAV integration into the NAS, so-called “sense and avoid” systems. Sense and avoid systems use various means to detect nearby objects (like other UAVs) and maneuver to avoid a crash. Right now, these systems are far too large and heavy to be integrated onto a typical civilian UAV airframe.
If Airware and NASA are successful, all of those cell phone towers just might be the answer to how to safely integrate civilian UAVs into US airspace.
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