NASA Has A Plan To Keep Our Skies Free Of Drone Congestion

A thousand people gathered at NASA’s Silicon Valley research center to hear the agency’s plan for creating a workable system.

NASA Has A Plan To Keep Our Skies Free Of Drone Congestion
[Photo: via AUVSI]

With an increasing number of drones vying for precious airspace, someone should start thinking about how we can possibly hope to manage the traffic congestion that will soon be over our heads.


That’s why NASA has undertaken a long-term effort to come up with an air-traffic management system for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) along the lines of what’s been in place for manned aircraft for decades.

The need for such a system was made abundantly clear recently when a privately operated drone interfered with firefighting efforts in Southern California. No one wants to see that happen again, but until now, there hasn’t really been a way to mitigate against such circumstances.

Today at the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, about a thousand people from throughout the drone industry–as well as from from a wide range of businesses that would like to implement drones–gathered to hear about the latest efforts to develop the air-traffic management protocols, as well as to discuss the best ways to implement such a system.

Leading the way has been Parimal Kopardekar, the principal investigator of NASA’s NextGen Airspace Project.

During his keynote address, Kopardekar laid out a vision for the next few years, a vision that encompasses everything from people using drones for personal use to businesses like real-estate companies and package deliverers to large-scale agricultural operations. They all need to perform their jobs and perform them safely, and the skies are only going to get more congested as they do so.

“My belief is that every home will have a drone, and every home will serve as an airport at some point in the future,” Kopardekar said, “and we want to enable that future.”


As Kopardekar put it, there are two major goals for the initiative. One is to safely enable drone operations as soon as possible. The other is to scale drone operations to the “density and demand that’s expected with higher safety efficiency and capacity within the next 10 years.”

Kopardekar understands the limitations of trying to implement an air-traffic management system, and he insisted that safe airspace integration requires “flexibility where possible, and structure where necessary.”

As he put it, any such system needs to be flexible based on geography, as well as on the purpose of each specific type of drone. Understanding those factors, he said, allows for tailoring the performance required in any specific airspace.

At its core, a drone air-traffic management system must be built around management of airspace, and the ability to implement real-time dynamic or static geofencing–technology that can automatically restrict where drones fly based on safety, security, or privacy parameters.

As an example, he pointed to the firefighting case. Kopardekar insisted that keeping drones from interfering in such operations is essential, and it should be possible to impose dynamic geofences around them as dictated by circumstances. Similarly, airports should usually have static geofences that prevent drones from flying too close to manned aircraft.

None of this will be possible, Kopardekar said, without better understanding of drone performance, including how they operate in heavy wind or weather. That means, he said, working closely with agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Weather Service.


Separation Management

In order to ensure that drones can safely fly in the skies over public spaces, it will be necessary to come up with a way for the devices to communicate, both directly to other drones, to the air-traffic management system, and directly to the Internet.

Kopardekar said he imagines four “builds,” separate regimens for managing drone traffic, that should be rolled out over the next few years.

The first build, which is expected to be ready next month, is focused primarily on a construct of airspace reservation, he explained. It would focus on integrating drone traffic management for devices flying over unpopulated land or water, in areas where there is minimal general aviation traffic, and where contingency situations are handled directly by the drone’s pilot. Such a system would be aimed at drones for agriculture, firefighting, and infrastructure monitoring.

NASA’s Parimal Kopardekar explains his vision for a drone air-traffic management system.

Build 2, Kopardekar said, should be ready by October 2016 and would be the first to allow drones to fly out of line of sight of their operators. It would involve drone tracking and low-density operations, and flying over sparsely populated areas. The build would implement flying procedures and “rules of the road.”

By January 2018, Build 3 should be in place–a system that would begin to implement drone-to-drone communications, safe separation of drones, and connectivity from the devices.

It would also enable beyond line-of-sight operations, and would allow flying over moderately populated areas and in areas where there are some manned aircraft. Build 3 would involve drone tracking, drone-to-drone communications, drone to air-traffic management communications, and control of drones by their operators over the Internet.


Kopardekar imagines that Build 3 would allow for limited package delivery by drones, such as has been proposed by Amazon and others.

Finally, Build 4, to be rolled out in March 2019, would add to those of the previous builds, allowing flight over urban areas, higher-density drone traffic, and autonomous drone-to-drone communications. It would also involve large-scale contingencies mitigation–how to handle drone traffic in case of urban emergencies, or loss of major communications systems. Kopardekar imagined that Build 4 would enable widespread drone use for news gathering, package delivery, and personal use.

How We Get There

Kopardekar understands that there are many different stakeholders when it comes to managing drone traffic. He explained that he thinks there are four different ways we can arrive at a system where his four builds are in place.

First, he said, is a system where everything is managed by a “single [government] service provider,” like the Federal Aviation Administration. Another would be one where there are multiple government service providers, such as state or local agencies. The third is a single nongovernmental organization, which he described as “a general aviation flight service station model.” And finally, it would also be possible for multiple nongovernmental agencies to run things in regional customized implementations by various companies.

Kopardekar said he and others have been working on this drone air-traffic management system for several years, in partnership with many government and nongovernment institutions.

Today, he said, federal agencies like the FAA, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense are involved in researching how to implement the system, along with more than 125 industry and academic collaborators. Already, he said, there is an air-traffic management client interface that’s available to some partners.


The packed house at the NASA Ames Research Center here today shows that there is a strong interest in what Kopardekar and his colleagues are working on. With the cooperation of many of the people and the institutions they represent, it is possible, Kopardekar hopes, for drones to be a safe and manageable part of our future, rather than an unmanaged danger to society at large.


About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications