NASA has its eyes on a piece of the mushrooming drone market by developing a method to manage what is a growing number of airborne crafts that aren’t tracked by air traffic control.
A report in the New York Times mentioned that the space agency’s researchers are using its Moffett Field airstrip just down the round from Mountain View to develop a traffic management system to monitor traffic and weather for the small low-flying craft.
“One at a time you can make them work and keep them safe,” said Parimal H. Kopardekar, a NASA principal investigator who is developing and managing that program. “But when you have a number of them in operation in the same airspace, there is no infrastructure to support it.”
NASA’s air traffic control [ATC] system for drones won’t look like a regular ATC centre that controls commercial airliners and instead will be run by computers and use algorithms to figure out where the craft are permitted to fly.
It’s likely to be some time until delivery drones are rolled out in the US and Dr. Kopardekar thinks that farming and “asset monitoring” will be the first sectors to benefit from drones, adding that he expects there to be “some action inside of the next year”.
Any plans to introduce the management system would have to be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] and a spokesperson told the same publication that it expects to bring out a proposed rule the year for small unmanned aircraft that weigh under 55lbs.
Another problem that undoubtedly needs to be overcome is one of public fears over the safety of such craft that could eventually hamper a large-scale roll out.
“There is the technology piece and then there is the public acceptance piece, and both have to evolve,” Dr. Kopardekar said. “If they are taken over by some rogue elements, how do you manage them? How do you have them safely land and take off in the presence of a grandma doing landscaping and kids playing soccer?”