NASA to Begin Testing Air-Traffic-Control System for Drones

Google, Amazon, and the University of Nevada, Reno are all involved.


NASA is testing a air-traffic-control system for drones
Don McCullough / Flickr

NASA is set to begin testing an air-traffic-control system for drones, the Las Vegas Sun reports:

Researchers at [the University of Nevada, Reno] are collaborating with NASA and two drone companies to test an air traffic control system for low-flying unmanned aircraft.

Later this month, a university team will be one of 12 groups testing software that lets drones communicate with the system NASA is developing.

The Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Traffic Management (UTM) system, developed in partnership with Google, Amazon, and a handful of other companies, will be akin to the air-traffic-control system used with traditional aircraft, but designed to work with small, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) traveling at lower altitudes.

The system will allow for geofencing (blocking off airspace, like around airports), collision detection, and guidance based on weather conditions, among other things. Ultimately, the goal is a system that functions semiautonomously, with computers handling things like collision avoidance without human intervention.

While the use of consumer drones continues to raise privacy and safety concerns, companies like Google and Amazon are anxious to work out the logistics of filling the skies with UAVs. Google received a patent for a drone "ambulance" in June, and Amazon wants to use drones to deliver packages to its customers.

The online retail giant says it plans to launch its program when the "regulatory support needed" is in place. Unfortunately, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been dragging its feet in actually providing such support.

"NASA's effort comes as the FAA has promised to integrate commercial drones into the national airspace," according to the Sun article quoted above. The chief engineer on the UNR team said, ultimately, the goal is provide the system to the FAA.

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  1. So if it works autonomously, without human intervention, that means that as soon as a no-fly list is compiled, this system can prevent a drone from taking off. And there will be no way to override it. Right?

    1. Over/under on how many months after implementation of this system before the first story hits the wire about hackers breaking in to ground the drones of people they don’t like?or take their own drones off the no-fly list?

      I’ll start the bidding at 8.5.

    2. Fun fact: One of the major “drone” (used to be called ‘radio controlled quadcopter’) mfg’s Yuneec won’t even spin up the motors if you’re within a 5 mile zone of an airport.

      If you live in Seattle (for instance), there’s nearly damn near no place you can fly one because five miles from Seatac covers a HUGE geographic area and population. It cuts out beautiful places with open fields and no air traffic. Annoying.

      1. How does that work? Is the database of airports hardwired into the drone’s firmware, or does the drone communicate in real time (presumably via satellite) with a centrally housed database?

        1. How does that work? Is the database of airports hardwired into the drone’s firmware,

          Yep. Drone requires a GPS signal to fly, then all the airport locations are within the firmware. Ultimately, it sounds very hackable. Check it out, all over the web. Google “yuneec no fly zone”

        2. Actually, I forgot, between Boeing Field (right in Seattle and classified by Yuneec as a no-fly zone) and SeaTac, pretty much all of puget sound is a no-fly zone.

          It’s ridick!

  2. Private drones operated by individuals don’t count?

    1. Did you make a major contribution to a campaign?

    2. #PrivateDronesMatter

  3. I’m really having difficulty believing that drones are constantly finding themselves in flight paths.

    1. I don’t even think that most people know how to classify a drone. Does the old R/C airplane collecting dust in my closet qualify as a drone, or is it just the quadcopters? Does a drone have to be autonomous?

      Shitheads flying their R/C planes into flight paths is a problem that has existed for 50 years. I guess there’s something scary about it now.

      1. TSA hasn’t found a single terrorist in its entire 13-year existence, and the only terrorists the FBI stumbles upon are the ones it recruits and equips. Bureaucrats gotta find some new threat to keep people shitting their pants. That’s why bureaucrats exist.

    2. I’m really having difficulty believing that drones are constantly finding themselves in flight paths.

      They’re not. It’s the equivalent of “no electronics” on a flight. It’s precautionary principle crap.

  4. Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Traffic Management (UTM)

    A nested acronym! Nothing good can come of this.

    1. UTM = Urinary Tract Misplacement

  5. I’m going to assume that geofencing is only for very important official government properties (and maybe for close personal friends of the regulators), and that a regular Joe Taxpayer can’t have his lowly dirtpatch walled off from our flying friends.

    1. Geofence could be a cool brand name for a shotgun optimized for downing errant drones.

    2. You live in L.A.? Your house has police helicopters over it 24×7. Would you even notice a little quad copter?

      1. That’s only in the hood, Paul. Maybe you should examine those stereotypes by watching some other LA movies like Nightcrawler, Falling Down, Drive, and Down and Out in Beverly Hills and you’ll see nary an autogyro in the air.

        1. Everything I know about L.A. I learned from 90s gangsta rap.

  6. No fucking way a mesh of drones hovering over a city 24/7 will not be surreptitiously utilized to survey the movements and lifestyles of every single soul existing under them. The glance of god is materializing.

    1. It was here a long time ago. Anything that the government wants to see, they can see from orbit.

      1. Only if a satellite happens to be over a location that they want to see at the time they want to see it. They’re actually fairly limited in that way. All the feds would need to be able to do is to build in a “back door” through this UTM system to access the live feed of any (or all) drone’s cameras that are communicating with the UTM and presto, they’ve got a live feed from every operational drone at any time.

        It’s actually really scary now that I think about it. I wouldn’t put it past the NSA to force them to put something like that into the system.

    2. But think how easy it will be for dealers to clients their shit.

  7. Is that U(AS)TM satellite- or ground-based? With the FAA involved, it could be based on tea leaves.

    1. “Is it dead?!”

  8. I have been wanting to get one of these things.

    In all honesty I do have some concerns about creating a hazard. Crop dusters, weekend flyers etc could run afoul of a drone. I am not too worried about passenger aircraft, they fly high. It has only been a few months since I saw a dozen weekend pilots headed to an airshow, flying in formation not more than 400 up. I guess I would never dare fly my drone over three hundred feet or so.

    Having said that, the photography and technology is really amazing. I have to get me some of that.

    1. In all honesty I do have some concerns about creating a hazard.

      You’re a good man Suthen, I have read several stories about wildfire tankers having to be grounded because people were flying drones near the wildfires. Hitting one while making a water drop would not be good.

      1. Hitting a 3lb drone while zooming across the tree tops and dropping water or chemicals on a raging fire with insane turbulence and downdrafts… I’m pretty sure the plane wouldn’t even feel it.

      2. Put it this way, there are birds heavier than many of the commercially available drones, and they don’t observe a no-fly zone.

        Imagine this behemoth clipping your toy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-cO4WpV9y8

        I’m not sure the pilot would even know he hit something.

    2. If you’re seriously interested, check out the AMA

      Depending on what you want to fly, they can do lessons and the like.

      1. I am pretty sure it will be one of these. Too much coolness. It even comes with flight simulator software and they claim even someone with no experience like me can take it straight out of the box, run through the lessons and go fly. It is as idiot proof as anything you can imagine. Great photography too.

        Just too cool.

  9. The Reno Drone Races?

  10. Does no one at NASA understand that you can build one of them from off the shelf parts?

  11. lets jsut roll with the flow dude, Seriously.


  12. As a total space nerd it pains me to say this…

    But why is NASA involved with developing air traffic control for drones? Oh yeah, because another useless government agency without even a primary mission anymore can’t possibly be phased out. Because that would be crazy talk.

    1. What are talking about? The robotic missions have been huge successes.

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