What is a NASA drone traffic control system and what does it do? For a start, it is a system set to be implemented by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, together with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), to track and ensure the safety of drones flying in the lower skies. Before the NASA drone traffic control system came to being, there were no rules and regulations for the lower sky. There were already systems and policies in place for large human-piloted aircrafts with human passengers, but drone aviation remained unchecked.
The lack of a working flight-tracking system for drones means that individuals will have to implicitly trust in the ability of drone pilots to stay away from dangerous zones and not make a single mistake while flying these unmanned little aircrafts from a remote area. Drones are too small to keep track of. Unlike planes and other manned air transport vehicles, they do not give clues about their location so tracking them can be quite a challenge. Out of concern for the future of the lower skies, the FAA worked with NASA to develop the Unmanned Aerial System Traffic Management system – more commonly known as the NASA drone traffic control system – in a bid to control air traffic for drones.
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In April 2016, the NASA drone traffic control system ran for a test drive at six different sites under the jurisdiction of FAA: New York, Virginia, North Dakota, Alaska, Texas and Maryland. The system test involved twenty four simultaneous drone flights. It was the first time the platform processed real-time and simulated flights together. It was also the first for controllers to test NASA-developed UTM projections on live flights. Engineers of the NASA Ames Research center religiously monitored each drone remotely. The flights were extensively tracked at every FAA test site.
In the first testing stage, a team of NASA pilots flew drones within the testing site. They tracked the movement of the drones and their ability to follow pre-programmed route instructions despite windy conditions with the use of GPS, radar, ADS-B and cellular signals. The data provided by the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) ground control station helped assess aircrafts for reliability, delay and accuracy.
The system required only 16 drones to work to be declared as a success. The testing period, however, covered six states and twenty-four drones. It was beyond expectation. NASA will next test the system with drones flying outside of a pilot’s line of vision. They will also try to find a way to track drones that are not yet identified by the system. NASA intends to use the information extracted from the tests to fine-tune the system to track different drones regardless of location.
It may take some time for the NASA drone traffic control system to be implemented. There has been speculation whether NASA’s proposed technology will work. With the lower sky becoming increasingly busy and saturated with flying drones, this new technology will hopefully set a new milestone for the industry and improve the future of drones.