Air Traffic Control for Drones

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration predicts that 7,500 drones will be operating in the U.S. by 2018. But there are a lot of concerns regarding the safety of people and property on the ground. For now, the FAA prohibits the commercial use of drones but they are working on regulation to integrate civil unmanned aircraft systems safe into the national airspace system.

Maybe Airware, a drone start up, can be of great help. Airware’s main business is selling control software and hardware to drone manufacturers and operators. They already have worked together with the FAA to anticipate regulatory needs. Now, they are working with NASA on a project exploring how to manage the swarms of commercial drones expected to start appearing in U.S. skies. This project will take four years and during those years several prototypes of air traffic management systems will be developed.

The first prototype will be an Internet-based system. The company who owns the drone needs to file a flight plan for approval. The system looks up the information about other drones in the area, weather forecasts and obstacles such as big buildings and radio masts, to give the go-ahead.

In later phases of the project, they will build more advanced systems that can actively manage drone traffic by sending out commands to drones in flight. That could mean directing them to spread out when drones from multiple operators are flying in the same area, or land on a safe place when an operator has lost contact with the drone. This commands could vary depending on the situation, for example, in a crowded area, it is not safe to immediately land the drone. For this advanced systems, Airware believes that equipping drones with cellular data connections would be the best option. The cellular infrastructure already exists, which is a plus. But at the same time, cell networks don’t have complete coverage over all the country. This can be a problem for remote areas that are popular for drone photography. Ultimately, NASA wants its system to do things like automatically steer drones out of the way of a crewed helicopter that unexpectedly passes through.


Airware. (2014) Airware Partners with NASA to Develop a UAS Traffic Management System . Available: Last accessed 21-10-2014.

Federal Aviation Administration (2014) Press Release – FAA Statement. Available: Last accessed 21-10-2014.

McCormick, R. (2014) NASA is building an air traffic control system for drones . Available: Last accessed 21-10-2014.

Simonite, T. (2014) Air Traffic Control for Drones. Available: Last accessed 21-10-2014.


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