NASA plans air traffic control system for drones

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NASA plans air traffic control system for drones

'New era of aviation' requires management systems for safety, privacy.

US NASA plans to develop a control system for drone traffic as commercial usage of the unmanned craft becomes increasingly popular.

The agency said there was an imminent need to keep up with commercial drone deployments like those already being prepared by tech giants Amazon and Google. 

Last year Google's secret Project Wing, which saw the web giant test drone-flown deliveries in Queensland alongside Unmanned Systems Australia, came to light.

Meanwhile, online retailer Amazon has received permission from the US federal aviation authority to undertake more testing of its own deliveries using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) near its Seattle headquarters.

Parimal Kopardekar, manager of NASA's safe autonomous systems operations, said the agency wants to accelerate the development of an air traffic control safety system for drones to keep pace with commercial developments.

He said a traffic control system would prevent the low-flying drones from colliding with people, buildings and other objects, as well as with one another and airplanes.

Other concerns around the use of drones focus on privacy. NASA also intends the system will prevent UAVs from being used to surreptitiously film and photograph people.

Before it can deploy a UAV management system, however, NASA will need to find ways of communicating with the aircraft in flight when there's no line of sight.

Researchers and industry partners such as telco Verizon have been looking into using low-altitude radar, radio frequencies and cellphone towers to develop ways to ensure that drones can be safely operated for low-level flights, NASA said.

UAS industry partners and NASA are also attempting to surmount other challenges in the pursuit of drone safety, such as accurate terrain mapping, and building databases of private housing to map when aircraft drift into privacy-sensitive zones.

NASA is looking for input from government, industry and the public on the system. It will hold a three-day conference at the Ames Research Centre in California from July 28-30, together with the Silicon Valley chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).

The conference will discuss policy issues around privacy, safety and security as well examining strategies for the low-altitude traffic management system.

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