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Drone control: Verizon’s cell phone towers could be used in NASA plan to monitor drones

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We already know about NASA working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to build technology to create an air traffic control system for the growing number of drones taking to the skies.

The latest news is that Verizon is joining the effort with a plan to use its cell towers to take that technology to the next level.

Documents obtained by the Guardian reveal the telecom giant signed a deal with NASA last year “to jointly explore whether cell towers….could support communications and surveillance of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) at low altitudes.”

The government agency’s work on a monitoring system for drones is already underway at its research base in Silicon Valley, while the potential for Verizon’s cell towers to be used as part of that system is expected to be tested in 2017, with plans to complete trials by 2019.

Besides monitoring the location of remotely controlled quadcopters and the like, NASA reportedly also wants its technology to incorporate geo-fencing to stop drones from flying over high-security locations. In addition, it wants to be able to automatically ground the remotely controlled machines in adverse weather conditions, and even prioritize one drone over another should the airspace become particularly busy.

The documents also revealed that AT&T has shown an interest in the drone management project. The telecom firm joined a “very well attended” workshop put on by NASA earlier this year that outlined the plan for the air traffic control system.  However, the agency said in the papers that up to now, “only Verizon has stepped forward to pursue collaboration with NASA regarding the potential use of cell towers.”

The project clearly has a long way to go, though bringing on board the U.S.’s biggest carrier certainly highlights the seriousness and scale of NASA’s drone-based plan.

In February the FAA released a list of proposed regulations for the commercial use of drones. These include a 55-pound limit for the machines, a daylight-only operation restriction, and a required UAS operator certificate. A speed limit of 100 mph and altitude limit of 500 feet have also been proposed.

A 60-day consultation period ended in April after collecting more than 4,500 comments from the public. The final rules are scheduled to be in place by September, though it’s not certain if the FAA will meet this deadline.

Many companies interested in using drones as part of their business have been pushing the FAA to implement the rules as soon as possible. Amazon, for one, has criticized the body for failing to keep up with the rapid pace of drone development, and wants to see the current restrictions relaxed so it can test its Prime Air delivery drone more freely.

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Trevor Mogg
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