Amazon drone delivery plan given hope as NASA progresses with air traffic control system

Commercial drones FAA regulations
When the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in February rolled out its proposed list of regulations for the commercial use of drones, many companies, Amazon among them, were left feeling disappointed.

The reason? The flying machines have to stay in view of the operator at all times, the FAA said. Of course, that’s no good for the Web giant, which is working on an ambitious project that would enable it to deliver small packages by drone to customers living close to its fulfillment centers. Industries hoping to use the machines to conduct inspections of equipment in remote areas are also affected by the proposed rules, which the FAA says are essential to ensure the safety of those on the ground.

The good news, however, is that a solution is in the works in the form of an air traffic control system for low-flying aircraft being developed by NASA.

The system, news of which was first reported last September, would help organize drone traffic and also monitor satellite data for adverse weather that could knock the machines out of the sky.

According to a Reuters report this week, progress with the management system is moving forward at a steady pace after NASA began working with U.S. aerospace company Exelis, as well as with a number of universities and other government agencies.

Exelis is of particular use to the project as it has exclusive access to a data feed from 650 aircraft-monitoring ground stations that’s already being used by the FAA to keep tabs on manned flying machines. The aerospace company plans to enhance the technology to include low-altitude aircraft such as drones. Tests are set to begin this summer, with Exelis VP Edward Sayadian hailing the system as a possible solution for unmanned aircraft flights by commercial operators who need to fly them out of sight.

It’s perfectly possible the final system may not involve an operator at all, with NASA reported to be developing a computer-based system with carefully designed algorithms controlling flights.

News of the project’s progress suggests Amazon’s Prime Air project may yet take to the skies, though of course the drone-based delivery plan will still have plenty of regulatory hoops to jump through before then.

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