Samantha Masunaga: Air Traffic Control for Drones is Coming

Samantha Masunaga/ TNJ | 5/17/2017, noon
By 2020, an estimated 7 million drones could be zipping around the country delivering packages, taking photos, inspecting infrastructure or ...
Photo Credit UAS OAC

Nationwide--By 2020, an estimated 7 million drones could be zipping around the country delivering packages, taking photos, inspecting infrastructure or conducting search and rescue missions.

But before that happens, they’ll need a system in place to avoid crashing into each other — or worse, passenger aircraft.

NASA, along with the Federal Aviation Administration and an extensive list of industry partners, has been researching the requirements needed to establish a drone traffic management system. This summer, some of those ideas will be tested in the field.

Unlike the current air traffic management system, this one won’t rely on human controllers in towers who bark instructions to incoming and outgoing aircraft. Instead, drone operators will use an electronic system to get access to constraint notifications and input flight information. And they will be expected to follow the rules.

Eventually, the system will be autonomous.

“We needed to look at things that can be done cost-effectively, can be done safely,” said Parimal Kopardekar, principal investigator at NASA for unmanned aerial systems traffic management.

The plan is to finish the research by 2019 and hand over ideas for the FAA to implement no later than 2025.

But the FAA will not be creating the entire electronic traffic management system — that task will largely be handled by companies that are already developing drone navigation and communication software, or drone manufacturers that want to create their own system.

That approach is not unlike the one spelled out for self-driving cars by the Department of Transportation last fall, in which the feds outlined loose safety guidelines but left it to companies to come up with solutions.

Once the rules are set and all drone systems can speak the same language, “that really unlocks the true potential of networked aerial robotics,” said Jonathan Evans, co-president of Skyward, a drone operations software firm that is participating in the NASA project.

The research for the drone system is focused on what’s known as uncontrolled airspace, a lower altitude that isn’t currently managed by air traffic management. However, NASA is also researching how to one day integrate drones into controlled airspace alongside crewed aircraft.

Here’s a look at some of the major requirements — and practical challenges — of drone traffic management.


During a recent NASA field test of the system in Reno, Nev., a gust of wind tossed some of the drones more than 100 feet, pushing them out of their designated operating zones.

The technology worked as intended: operators received notice of the conditions and were able to land the drones safely, said Steve Gitlin, vice president of corporate strategy at Monrovia, Calif., company AeroVironment Inc. The test showed how much weather can affect drone flights, and that the devices need proper spacing just like manned aircraft, said Kopardekar of NASA.

Small drones are much more susceptible to weather changes because they fly low, Gitlin said. AeroVironment’s Puma drone, which looks like a miniaturized Cessna private plane, took part in the NASA test in Reno.