The shape of airspace to come?

Drone_SunsetIn July, at the NASA-AUVSI (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems Inter­national) Unmanned Traffic Convention 2015, at NASA’s Ames Research Center, several drone systems operators presented their vision of what the skies would look like in a world full of approved cargo drones, and how these vehicles would be designed to avoid collisions and other mishaps.

Amazon, for instance, has proposed di­viding airspace into finer layers so drones can fly without human interface in their own slice of the air. Gur Kimchi, vice presi­dent of Amazon Prime Air, laid out the company’s vision to create an airspace be­tween 200 and 400 feet above the ground for high-speed drones to operate out of line-of-sight, while smaller, slower drones would be restricted to flying below 200 feet. A 100-foot airspace between 400 and 500 feet would be a “no-fly-zone,” which would serve as a buffer between drones and conventional aircraft.

A database – to be shared with all drone users – would be created, Kimchi contin­ued, which would steer UAV’s away from buildings, towers and high ground. Long-range drones would be required to file a flight plan, and be connected to the inter­net, so they could be tracked and receive warnings if they are in danger.

To avoid midair collisions, the drones must be able to communicate with each other. Also, drones that can fly long dis­tances must be equipped with sensors that can detect birds and other hazards. Kimchi said as long as there are data showing where the drones are, it should be sent to a central computer system, to which any company, including Amazon, would have access. In addition to Amazon, Google, Verizon and nine other companies signed agreements to work with NASA to partici­pate in this program.

Dave Vos, head of Google(x)’s “Project Wing” drone delivery concept, told at­tendees at a recent conference that the unmanned aircraft industry should take advantage of using cell phones to allow us­ers of drones to file flight plans online and have them approved or altered almost im­mediately. The flight plan would be sent by cell phone to an airspace service provider, which would analyze whether or not there was a conflict with other vehicles, and then either approve the flight or suggest an al­ternative.

He said all small UAVs would carry an inexpensive Automatic Dependent Sur­veillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) transceiver – which Google plans to bring to the market – to show its location. Of course, manned aircraft would always have the right-of-way; with the ADS-B devices, the drones would know where aircraft are, too, and get out of the way.

Knowing the identity of each aircraft in airspace is vital to making the system work, Vos said, so when a flight plan is filed, the airspace service provider would be able to identify who owns the aircraft. Air traffic controllers wouldn’t need to be notified of the small UAV’s flight plan except in the case of emergency.

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