Building a Drone Infrastructure
As the Air Drone Craze continues to expand and more businesses become interested in using Drones, an area that will need attention very soon will be an infrastructure just for drones. An “Air Zone for Drones” that has designated altitudes and an air traffic system that will allow drones to communicate with each other.
It would need to include Drone Management Systems, pick-up/ delivery stations, Repair Stations and Charging Stations along with a way of identifying the UAV in case of a problem. A sort of “EXPRESS LANE FOR DRONES” that would be automated as well.
NASA is working in conjunction with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other government entities, along with other partners in the industry to research, develop, test and create an air-traffic control system just for drones, called the Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Traffic Management. It will deal with both high and low-altitude operations.
Dr. Parimal Kopardekar is a rocket scientist (YES – this problem requires one of those) he has worked on numerous Airspace and Air Transportation Technology projects at NASA, was the recipient of the NASA Ames Honor Award for Engineer of the Year in 2003 and he is currently the Principal Investigator of the NASA’s NextGen Airspace Project.
One of his current projects is the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Traffic Management System (UTM), or what we mortals would call a “Air Zone for Drones.”
We are basically creating this UAS traffic management system that allows you to accommodate the number of vehicles that will operate in the low altitude airspace. The analogy is ‘just because we have a car, whether it’s an autonomous car or someone is driving, does not negate the need for a road or stop signs or rules of the road.’ The same thing happens in the airspace. We need to have a structure.
There is still some research that needs to be done such as with the “last 50 feet” problem where vehicles can land and take off safely in the presence of moving objects, people and fixed objects on the ground. So, this requires detect and avoid technology not only for other vehicles, but also for other objects and people so that the vehicle can safely negotiate through the airspace or wait for things to be cleared.
This is where Dr. Kopardekar’s UTM base comes in. The UTM system allows UAS operators to create a geo-fenced area (an area defined by GPS coordinates) to pilot their aircraft. By staying in the geo-fenced area, all movements and behaviors of the vehicle can be monitored and operators can program flights based on GPS location.
AMAZONS Proposed Solution
Amazon—which has been exploring drone use for product deliveries—has a deep and obvious interest in making sure the airborne technology flies. Before it can unleash a fleet of compact air couriers, safety concerns must be the first priority.
The e-commerce giant’s two-lane plan envisions the slower route occupying the air below 200 feet, with faster long-distance drones traveling along a band of sky between 200 and 400 feet. It also recommends a no-fly zone between 400 and 500 feet.
The proposal hinges on the devices communicating with each other, so that every Drone in the sky will know where others are. That sort of networking could lead to a centralized air traffic control system for UAVs. If a flying gadget can’t connect to others, it will be required to stay below 200 feet.
This and other proposals are being considered as part of NASA’s nascent Unmanned Aerial System Traffic Management system, which includes Google and Verizon as partners.
Here are a few other company’s hoping to put their system into the mix:
Airware based San Francisco has attracted a lot of interest from Venture Capital companies and other investors because it has developed flexible, cost-effective autopilots that serve as the “brains” for drones. A software and hardware platform that companies can use to develop their own commercial drone fleets. a proprietary, operating system and related hardware components for commercial drones.
Airware’s work has also caught the attention of NASA. The US space agency partnered with the company in September 2014 to help develop an air traffic management system for unmanned aircraft
San Francisco-based DroneDeploy has developed a cloud-based platform for managing drone flights, sensors, data processing and more. This can be used for aerial data capture in industries that need that kind of information, such as agriculture or construction. The startup’s software works with several popular hobbyist drones.
SkyWard is also working with NASA and the world’s three largest drone makers—DJI in China, 3D Robotics in the U.S., and Parrot in France—to demonstrate that swarms of drones can safely coexist in crowded airspace. “It’s about applying the regulatory framework to a new kind of aviation infrastructure,” says co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Evans. The software project, Urban SkyWays, is designed to resemble a conventional air traffic control system at altitudes of 1,200 feet or lower.
SkyWard and its partners plan to make money from annual subscriptions paid by drone operators to use the traffic control software. For now, SkyWard is consulting and working with companies on drone-pilot training and compliance with FAA regulations.
Working Within the Current Structure
Meanwhile one option for rural areas that the U.S. postal Service is interested in is designed to help companies manage their logistics now.
The HorseFly, a newly designed, autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle, was developed to work in tandem with delivery trucks, creating a safe, fast and never-before-seen method of delivering goods.
Designed to speed package delivery while cutting costs. When mated to a Workhorse electric truck, the HorseFly can quickly recharge from the truck’s large battery. With delivery trucks scattered within almost any region during the day, the Drone can make short flights from the vehicle, as opposed to flying from a warehouse for each delivery.
While this plan will take some time to set-up and implement, the responsibility for reliable safety systems will fall on the manufacturers, along with the added cost of producing such systems being passed on to the customer. We are probably still a few years away from drone to home delivery, but the technology is there, it just needs to be rigorously tested and refined before the FFA will allow more wide-spread commercial Drone delivery.