Developing an Infrastructure for Drones

Alphabet Tests Air Traffic Control System for Flying Machines

The growing use of drones is leading to a greater likelihood of traffic jams in the skies and in some cases, potential conflicts with commercial aircraft. In an attempt to create some order, several governmental and private companies are developing air traffic control systems for drones. This includes Alphabet’s subsidiary Project Wing.

Organisations continue to express interest in deploying commercial drones for things such as parcel deliveries, surveillance and inspection, and this is fuelling the need for a system to control the traffic boom. Unmanned aerial vehicles will become a common part of a country’s infrastructure, but it won’t happen without a high level of coordination and regulation.

Last week, Alphabet’s Project Wing, a self-described “moon shot factory” developing technologies “to make the world a better place”, announced it has been working with NASA and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It is aiming to create new systems intended to avoid the problem of drones bashing into one another or smashing into buildings and manned aircraft.

Alphabet’s researchers are trialling their technology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University’s FAA-approved drone test site. The experiment used six drones that simulated parcel deliveries and several which simulated search and rescue missions, creating a mock-up of an airspace active with multiple drones, each on a specific mission. Each drone was flown by a pilot, but wirelessly shared flight path information with Project Wing’s unmanned traffic management software, dubbed UTM.

The system constantly monitors the position of each drone, analyses when collisions might occur, plans new routes, and then updates the new flight path accordingly without a pilot having to intervene. Nevertheless, it does provide operators with notifications along the way to let them know what’s happening. The system also allows the FAA to dynamically add no-fly zones so that drones can avoid, for example, an area where there’s a fire.

Although this experiment started with only six drones, it’s a good beginning. The Project Wing team plans to “support more simultaneous flights and navigate environments of greater complexity” in the future, but a lot needs to be done before these systems can be commercialised.

Deployment of commercial drones is still in its infancy and it’s encouraging to see such cooperation between industry and government agencies. Greater use of unmanned flying machines will create opportunities as well as disruption, but it’s clear that this is a long-term trend as authorities will be hesitant to throw caution to the wind.