One hundred years ago, in late February 1920, the United Kingdom’s Air Ministry commissioned a first-of-its-kind building at the newly opened Croydon Airport. The U.K.’s inaugural international airport (now defunct) was home to an elevated wooden hut with four large windows that was grandly referred to as the Aerodrome Control Tower. It was the world’s first air traffic control center.
At the time, air travel was still in its infancy. Although the first commercial flight had taken place six years earlier, the era of mass air travel remained several decades away. Along with providing weather information to pilots, the job of the people who worked in the Aerodrome Control Tower was to mark the progress of approximately 12 daily flights, tracked using basic radio-based navigation, on paper maps by way of pins and flags. It was, needless to say, a simpler time.
A century later, we’re in a similar position — only this time with drones. Whether it’s racing drones, delivery drones, or even air taxi drones capable of transporting humans, drones look ready to take over the world. But they’re not there just yet. Although drones might loosely be called mainstream, they’re hardly ubiquitous.
“Having been around for a while, I remember when cell phones were an oddity that only doctors had,” said David Hose, drawing a parallel with another technology which, not long ago, was still relatively niche. “When I saw what they could do, I thought that this was going to be something that everyone will have at some point. We’re a lot closer with drones to those early days of only doctors having cellphones them than we are with [cell phones today]. But we’re on that [same] journey.”
Hose is the CEO of a drone-focused company called AirMap, which is backed by the likes of Airbus, Baidu, Microsoft, Qualcomm, and Sony. While there are plenty of companies out there building new kinds of drones, AirMap is taking a different tack. It is helping to build and improve the necessary infrastructure to allow drone operators to fly both safely and legally. It is, as its name implies, quite literally building a map of the air.
“Today’s air traffic system [with airplanes] is incredibly effective and safe,” Hose said. “But it relies largely on a human — the air traffic controller — talking to another human in an aircraft. That’s not going to scale if you have the kind of [drone] volume that we expect to occur very shortly.”
Prepping the sky for a drone invasion
Like air travel at the time Croydon Airport’s Aerodrome Control Tower was commissioned, the drone airspace is currently fairly sparsely populated. Sure, there are drones carrying out a range of activities, but nowhere near as many as looks probable for the near future. Activities like using drones to inspect aging infrastructure, monitor large crowds for certain behaviors, or deliver our Amazon purchases within an hour or so of ordering them all remain proof of concepts rather than daily realities. But when things go big, they’re going to really go big.
Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) handles more than 16 million aircraft flights per year, equivalent to more than 44,000 per day. During peak operational hours, the FAA tracks more than 5,000 aircraft in the skies, with 518 active air traffic control towers, 21 air route traffic control centers, and a total of 14,695 air traffic controllers. Those numbers are going to look like a cloudless sky next to the plethora of drones we expect to see dotting the skies.
Compounding the problem is not just where these drones fly, but how they fly. With traditional plane-based air traffic management, most of the attention needs to be paid when an aircraft is either taking off or landing. While it’s important to monitor them when they’re in flight, the chances of a collision are minimal. If two airborne planes get within a mile of one another, it’s a surprise. Drones are different.
“When you look at where drones fly, they fly much closer to the ground, within a few hundred feet of each other,” Hose said. “Suddenly, the world gets a lot more complicated, right? You have power lines, wind [turbines], people on the ground. There are all of those obstacles and real-world items which need to be much more considered when you’re thinking about drones — especially if you start having drones fly very close to each other, within 50 feet.”
Obstacles don’t necessarily have to be physical, either. For instance, flying a drone over a prison is illegal (with good reason) in some countries. There may be similar prohibitions barring people from flying a camera drone close to a school. Or at a certain elevation. Or over stadiums during a sports game. AirMap’s technology allows drone operators to enter a particular route and then receive guidance on the exact “do’s” and “don’ts” about where they wish to fly.
Who’s piloting that drone?
At present, Hose said that only a small number of the drones in the air currently show up on AirMap. Though there are “thousands of drones active across the United States,” and this number is growing all the time, the ones that are visible using the service remains minimal in terms of overall percentage. One day, companies like AirMap — and the FAA — hope that this will change.
It could eventually be possible to have a centralized drone air traffic control center that can identify every drone in a particular airspace. This could help to resolve situations like the December 2018 Gatwick Airport drone incident, in which reports of drone sightings near to the runway disrupted 1,000 flights and some 140,000 passengers, bringing a major international airport near London to a screeching halt.
The FAA, for instance, wants drones to be registered for a fee and then kitted out with radio and internet connectivity to reveal their location and pilot whenever such information is requested.
“I think regulation is the primary [thing that will move the needle],” Hose said. “We’ve been living in a world where it’s been voluntary for quite a long time. That was probably fine in the beginning when there weren’t that many [drones]. But I think that now we’ve seen that people don’t voluntarily participate sufficiently. I believe regulations are what it will take.”
Whether this will happen remains to be seen. But, in the meantime, the likes of AirMap are trying to lay some of the groundwork that makes it easier for drone operators to, well, operate. We’ll thank them when our drone deliveries or drone taxi journeys make it to their final destination without running into problems.
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