NASA Developing Air Traffic Control System for Drones

But will it pave the way to delivery drone services?

3 min read
NASA Developing Air Traffic Control System for Drones
Image: NASA

If you don't think that drones are a problem today, you have to admit that drones will be a problem soon. As they get even cheaper and easier to fly (and especially as they start to fly themselves more and more), everyone is going to be able to have a drone. And even worse than that, all those companies who came up with ridiculous drone delivery publicity stunts will start to seriously think that "hey, maybe this can work!"

I'm pretty sure that the whole urban drone delivery thing is still probably never (or almost never) going to happen, but under some very specific circumstances, certain aspects of it (like repetitive point-to-point delivery) might make sense to put into practice. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is a little bit behind on all of this, but NASA is working to get ahead, by developing an autonomous drone traffic management program. 

Airspace above 500 feet is already well regulated by the FAA, but there's a potentially dangerous void that's about to get really crowded between 500 feet and either your skull or the ground, whichever comes first. At NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley, NASA engineers and researchers are working on a way to manage that void, and the system they're trying to put in place would help out small autonomous aircraft in a number of ways:

Airspace Restrictions: For manned airplanes, a lot of what air traffic control is all about is telling you where you can't go, as opposed to where you can. Especially around airports, airspace is heavily restricted over a succession of increasing altitudes, and whenever there are special air operations in place (like around air shows or forest fires), special no-fly zones pop up. Autonomous drones (and piloted ones, for that matter) will have to dynamically adapt to, and respect, airspace rules that may change rapidly. And for drones operating close to the ground, restricted airspace would, when possible, also include obvious stuff that you wouldn't want to run into, like buildings.

Flight Corridors: I don't think that we're going to see the sort of drone delivery that Amazon is promising within the next few years, and it sounds like Google doesn't either, with the company suggesting that it might be "a few years but less than a decade" before consumers see any tangible uses from the technology. My guess is that the first time we'll see delivery drones doing anything useful will be dedicated point-to-point service, where the landing areas can be carefully defined and controlled. That solves a huge amount of the problems that we identified with delivery drones, but it still leaves the issues with actually flying around: namely, running into stuff. Having established flight corridors would allow delivery drone operators to carefully define and control flight paths as well, ensuring that there are no obstacles or other aircraft for the drones to smash into.

Operating Areas: NASA suggests that we might start seeing drones for agricultural monitoring and inspections in about a year or so. It would be handy, and safe, to be able to schedule a time and an area where you want a drone to fly around doing work, with some amount of confidence that you wouldn't be bothered.

Again, we want to stress that the eventual adoption of a system like this would be fantastic for small autonomous drones, and it will likely also be necessary for their safe long-term commercial use, including delivery drones as proposed by Google and Amazon. But it's not going to solve every problem that they have, and companies like Amazon and Google have a lot of maaaaaybe impossible work to do before they'll be dropping packages off on your doorstep.

Via [ New York Times ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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