What’s being done to keep drones of future from crashing into each other (or worse)

WASHINGTON — The promise of unmanned drones delivering packages, smoothing congested commutes, observing dangers and solving crimes is being tested and developed by companies and agencies, but one large question remains: What’s to keep all of the drones of the future from slamming into each other, and other flying objects?

Managing unmanned aircraft systems in a shared airspace can’t be done the same way it is accomplished with airplanes and helicopters piloted by humans.

“We don’t have a pilot in the cockpit that can talk to (an air traffic) controller, and it’s not easy to relay communications from the aircraft down to a pilot on the ground,” said Mark Blanks, director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, or MAAP.

The group is a Federal Aviation Administration-designated test site for unmanned aircraft systems.

With more than a million drones already registered with the FAA, Blanks said the volume of drone traffic is already greater than the current air traffic management system is designed to handle.

“We probably couldn’t hire enough air traffic controllers to meet the need or the demand down the road,” Blanks said.

Unlike traditional air traffic management, which is handled by the federal government, the control of unmanned aircraft is a partnership between industry and the FAA.

Private companies have been developing the technology, but the FAA will maintain oversight of the management system.

“We’re using software that’s already predominantly on the aircraft,” Blanks said. “So it can define its mission — where it’s going and when it will be there — and share that information with a central traffic management system.”

While leveraging the intent of the drone, and the volume of airspace that will be required to complete the mission, and the time that it will occur, the system “will separate other aircraft that also want to fly in the same airspace.”

Blanks said a similar automated system is already fully implemented: the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability, or LAANC.

“It’s a system that allows operators to request permission to fly in controlled airspace, around airports,” Blanks said.

With the LAANC system, a drone pilot can use a smartphone app to request and receive near-instant authorization to fly in controlled airspace under 400 feet.

As the MAAP group begins work on developing a system that would help planes and drones to share airspace, Blanks expects it will take years, as smaller pieces are implemented when they are ready.

“In testing, we’ll identify some weaknesses and some strengths, and we’ll leverage that knowledge in order to improve the system, down the road,” he said.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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