Delivery drones: NASA to test advanced traffic control system for cities

nasa test drone traffic control system india aviation show
Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images

Drones have already been used to deliver pizza, mail, and medical supplies, but for drone delivery to go mainstream, an air traffic management system needs to be put in place to ensure safety in the skies.

NASA, in partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), has spent the last four years developing such a system for urban areas, which could pave the way for major companies like Amazon to incorporate unmanned aerial systems (UAS) into their increasingly ambitious shipping operations.

This week, NASA announced that for the final phase of the project, two organizations will host technical demonstrations of its traffic management system: Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems in Las Vegas, and the Lone Star UAS Center for Excellence & Innovation in Corpus Christi, Texas.

“This phase represents the most complicated demonstration of advanced UAS operating in a demanding urban environment that will have been tested to date,” NASA’s Ronald Johnson said in a release.

The drone flights are scheduled to take place in and around downtown Reno, Nevada between March and June 2019, and in Corpus Christi during July and August 2019.

The aim is to demonstrate the important technologies that underpin the drone traffic management system, including vehicle-to-vehicle communication, vehicle-integrated detect-and-avoid capabilities, and automated safe-landing systems.

According to NASA, the demonstrations will help the commercial drone industry better understand the full spectrum of challenges posed by autonomous aircraft flights in a busy city environment.

Data from the test flights will also be used to inform future rules, policies, and traffic management procedures for operating drones in a safe and efficient manner in urban areas, NASA said.

With more and more hobbyists sending their drones skyward, and an increasing number of businesses keen to utilize the technology in their daily operations — whether for deliveries or other purposes — NASA, the FAA, and other related bodies will be keen to gather as much data as possible from the upcoming work in Nevada and Texas.

A future traffic management system could involve giving different types of aircraft their own space in the sky, something Amazon has been calling for since 2015 when it suggested the FAA reserve a space of between 200 and 400 feet from the ground exclusively for delivery drones such as its Prime Air machine.

Full-fledged drone delivery services are still a ways off, but NASA’s ongoing efforts, when combined with technological advances, bring closer the possibility of our skies one day buzzing with fleets of delivery drones. Now if only they could do something about the noise.

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