Who’ll keep track of all those drones in flight?

Drone traffic control systems mature

With the increased proliferation of smaller aircraft, or hobby drones, that are capable of flying under traditional radar, more unmanned aerial systems will be crowding the skies — and existing air traffic control systems won’t be able to track them.  NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration have begun working with several partners in both the public and private sector to integrate and monitor drones in the airspace.

As one of the big players in the integration of drones into the national airspace, NASA has provided research and prototype methods for UAS traffic management systems, or UTMs, which would monitor drones vis-à-vis the traffic system established for traditional airline transportation.

Lockheed Martin has also developed a UTM.  Mike Glasgow, who is the firm’s aviation services chief architect, told GCN that  Lockheed UTM aims to provide UAS pilots with a flight service similar to that used by commercial and private pilots.  Based on the flight services framework, it would “allow UAS operators to report where they are operating and [make] that data available to pilots and other airspace users.”

Lockheed’s UTM works with those government and commercial drones that have received special exemptions from the FAA to fly.  First deployed in January, Lockheed’s UTM allows UAS operators to report where they will be operating. It then alerts other general aviation pilots in the area that these drones will be flying. Eventually, Lockheed wants to create a system in which pilots file flight plans and integrate an Adverse Condition Alerting Service that would send out emails or alerts with potential changes in flight plans or in flight paths.

Commercial use of drones is currently banned by the FAA unless the agency grants a special exception.  But drones weighing less than 55 pounds can be considered “model aircraft” under the law — hobbyists my freely pilot such devices so long as they keep the drone in sight, fly no higher than 500 feet and stay at least five miles away from airports. These hobbyists are not required to file flight plans or NOTAMs.  Glasgow, who is also a Lockheed Martin fellow, said Lockheed’s system was designed to be used by virtually anyone, but noted the problems associated with operators who can fly virtually without oversight.

NASA’s UTM prototypes will be rolled out under four builds, or phases, between August 2015 and March 2019.  The first build, the agency said, “will create, analyze and manage trajectories and constraints that enable operations by an interactive system. The focus will be on geo-fencing, altitude ‘rules of the road’ and scheduling of vehicle trajectories.”  The first build focuses on rural operations that include operation

According to Glasgow, the fundamental difference between Lockheed’s efforts and NASA’s is that Lockheed is “focused on deploying operational capabilities as quickly as possible as they become ready,” while NASA is working on a multiyear effort to prototype.  “[NASA’s] building a UAS traffic management prototype, basically vet concepts and show how it could work,” he said, boiling down the difference as research vs. deployed operational capabilities.

NASA and the FAA have also partnered with others in industry to find ways to monitor thousands of new objects flying in the busiest and safest airspace.

For example, Amazon has proposed a segregated airspace below 500 feet, which “will buffer sUAS [small UAS] operations from current aviation operations. It will also buffer lesser-equipped vehicles from highly-equipped vehicles able to safely perform BLOS [beyond line of sight] missions.”  The plan segregates the airspace outlining certain aircraft to operate in airspace below 200 feet, between 200 and 400 feet and between 400 and 500 feet.

Another aspect of monitoring UASs is the ability to establish geofences, or electronic barriers that prevent aircraft from flying into a particular region.  At a recent NASA UTM conference, proposers demonstrated how users approved for a flight plan must enter a valid geofence into the UTM system prior to take-off.  While there are several software programs and add-ons that are capable of geofencing, these tools are valid only for users that are required to file flight plans, which excludes model aircraft users.  Additionally, some experts have warned that geofence software could be susceptible to hackers.

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is an editorial fellow with Defense Systems and GCN.


After Government’s Greenlight, Commercial Drones Set To Take Off

Tom Gorner, founder of Skyscape Services, flies his drone in the backyard of his Virginia home. His company uses the drone to photograph real estate for prospective buyers.

Tom Gorner, founder of Skyscape Services, flies his drone in the backyard of his Virginia home. His company uses the drone to photograph real estate for prospective buyers.

Brian Naylor/NPR

Stories about how Amazon and Google want to deliver packages using drones have gotten a lot of attention. But in fact, some 1,300 businesses and individuals have already received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to use drones for commercial purposes — everything from selling real estate to inspecting utility lines. But their operators are worried that recreational drone users who have been flying their vehicles near aircraft may spoil the party.

In the backyard of Tom Gorner’s suburban Virginia home one recent morning, the sky was blue and clear as Gorner prepared to launch his drone (or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle as they’re sometimes known). He held the controller, which looks not unlike a video game controller with two joy sticks —one to control the device’s altitude, one for direction. He toggles a switch and the drone begins to beep.

“You’ll see underneath here just like a plane there are red lights and green lights; they’re all designated to mean something,” he said.

Gorner is founder of Skyscape Services; his company uses the drone to photograph real estate for prospective buyers, and golf courses to lure new members. The drone is equipped with a small video camera and can send images down to his laptop or iPad.

Like Gorner’s drone, the commercial UAV industry is taking off too. There is lot of potential for commercial drone use, said Rose Mooney, executive director of the Mid Atlantic Aviation Partnership, which the FAA has designated as a test site for drones. “Things like search-and-rescue, and roof inspection, things where people are actually getting hurt today. Even things like news gathering for traffic,” he said. Mooney called them “dull, dirty, dangerous jobs,” but said they are just the initial step in making drone use “the next pioneering technology in aviation.”

But with the optimism, there is cause for concern; specifically the alarming rise in the number of close calls between recreationally-flown drones and other aircraft. There have been more than 700 sightings of drones by aircraft pilots so far this year, according to the FAA, involving everything from commercial jets to aerial fire fighters.

Matt Scassero, director of the University of Maryland’s drone test site warns that “if one person has a major mishap or just the sheer number of incidents continues to grow, it’s going to give the entire industry a bad name.” So the industry is trying to increase public outreach and education “so folks know what the rules are and they operate responsibly.”

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told NPR recently he too is worried about what he calls the dramatic upswing in sightings of wayward drones. “The whole idea of these drones coming into conflict with other aircraft is something that I’m extremely concerned about. There are a lot of people operating model unmanned aircraft with little or no aviation experience,” Huerta said. “They’re buying them at hobby shops. They’re buying them at camera stores. So the whole concept of what are the rules of the air is a very new thing to them.”

Huerta said it comes down to education and enforcement. The FAA is beta testing an app called “b4ufly” that will enable recreational drone users to find out if they’re operating within a restricted area — within five miles of an airport. Recreation drones are also supposed to stay below 400 feet and away from stadiums. And he says violators can be fined up to tens of thousands of dollars.

Tom Gorner, who’s company like all commercial users had to hire a pilot to fly its drone, said he’s frustrated by those who act maliciously. He says “it’s not helping the people who want to do this … for a business or a hobby even, that just want to fly safely.”

After a drone landed on the White House lawn some months ago, its manufacturer DJI, which also made Gorner’s drone, updated the operating system so that it won’t fly in restricted airspace.

Now there are calls to equip all drones with similar technology.


The Selfie-Drone: Invasion of the Vacation Snatchers

AUG. 31, 2015


Credit Wesley Bedrosian

Stephanie Rosenbloom

It was a blistering hot Sunday in Provence. The painted shutters of the houses in Arles were closed. Visitors were scarce. In the Roman amphitheater, built to hold some 20,000 spectators, I sat among empty bleachers, above homes with orange tile roofs, looking past ancient arcades and terraces to the blue horizon. Was this the sort of stillness van Gogh experienced when he was in Arles on this same June day in 1888? I began to entertain the thought but was distracted by a soft whirring; a faint electric hum. Something was drawing near. I looked around and saw nothing — until it and I were eye to eye.

Or rather, eye to lens. A drone resembling one of those round Roomba robotic vacuums had levitated from the pit of the nearly 2,000-year-old arena and was hovering in the air between me and the cloudless horizon. Reflexively I turned away and tugged on the hem of my dress. Who knew where this flying Roomba was looking or what it was recording?

Unexpected moments of tranquillity, like finding yourself in a near-empty Roman arena during a heat wave, are becoming more and more elusive. If someone isn’t about to inadvertently impale you with a selfie-stick, another may catch you on video with a recreational drone, like the DJI Phantom (about $500 to $1,600), which is easy to use (unless you’re inebriated, like the man who crashed a Phantom on the White House grounds in January).

Yet what travelers are seeing today — remote-controlled drones bobbing around tourist sites, near airports, in the Floridian National Golf Club in Palm City while President Obama played golf — is but the tip of the iceberg. Think remote-controlled drones and selfie-sticks are intrusive? Prepare for the selfie-drone.

This next generation of drones, which are just beginning to roll out, doesn’t require users to hold remote controllers: They are hands-free. Simply toss them in the air, and they will follow you like Tinker Bell. With names such as Lily (around $700 on pre-order) and Nixie (not yet available for pre-order), they are capable of recording breathtaking video footage and trailing adventure travelers across bridges and streams, down ski slopes and into secluded gardens.

Nixie, which you can wear on your wrist until you want to fling it off for a photo or video, has a “boomerang mode” that allows it to fly back to you as if it were a trained raptor. A promotional video for Lily shows a man with a backpack lobbing the drone like a stone over a bridge and casually walking away, only to have the thing float up and follow him. Think you can outmaneuver the contraption in white-water rapids? Lily is waterproof. I watched with awe a video of Lily being dumped into a river beside a woman in a kayak (where one assumes Lily will perish), yet within seconds emerging and rising, like Glenn Close from the bathtub in “Fatal Attraction.”

There is no denying that the latest drone technology is impressive. And the footage is striking. Adventure travelers who wish to watch themselves scale Kilimanjaro or surf in Hawaii along the North Shore of Oahu will no doubt want one. But if selfie-drones become staples of every traveler who can afford them, we stand to lose more than we stand to gain when it comes to privacy, safety and quality-of-life factors like peace and beauty.

Imagine sunsets at the lake or beach with dozens of selfie-drones cluttering the sky, each vying for that perfect shot. Picture canoodling on a seemingly remote park bench during your romantic getaway and ending up on video. The intimate walks and tête-à-têtes that call to mind Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester would hardly be the same with drones whizzing by. Think of your children building sand castles and being videotaped by passing drones. Who will be watching and recording us, and where will that information end up?

I shudder to think of 17- and 18-year-olds receiving drones for Christmas and on their winter vacations crashing the contraptions into unsuspecting sunbathers. Or themselves. Lest you think I joke, consider that in May the singer Enrique Iglesias, who is well past his teenage years, sliced his fingers while trying to snap a photo with a (remote-controlled) drone during his concert in Mexico.

Strolling Sheep Meadow in Central Park in New York on a warm spring day is already an art with all of the dodging of footballs and Frisbees one must perfect to survive. Throw in selfie-drones, and I may have to buy a flaneur’s helmet. Why not? If a drone is in midair when its battery dies, it falls from the sky.

Pitfalls abound. Yet when it comes to travel, there is no greater concern than drone use near airports. The Federal Aviation Administration said in August that pilot reports of close calls with drones had increased drastically in 2015, to more than 650 sightings by Aug. 9, up from 238 in all of 2014.

“Pilots of a variety of different types of aircraft — including many large, commercial air carriers — reported spotting 16 unmanned aircraft in June of 2014, and 36 the following month,” the F.A.A. said in a statement. “This year, 138 pilots reported seeing drones at altitudes of up to 10,000 feet during the month of June, and another 137 in July.”
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I recently had a close encounter with a whiny recreational drone near an otherwise peaceful marsh on Cape Cod. The operator (a middle-aged…

Drones have been spotted near all of the New York area’s major airports, including John F. Kennedy International, La Guardia and Newark Liberty International in New Jersey. Last year, pilots on major carriers reported seeing drones 100 feet off a wing (Delta) and flying under the plane’s nose (JetBlue).

The Global Gateway Alliance, a New York and New Jersey airport advocacy group, said in a news release that the high number of drone incidents in the New York airspace accounted for almost a third of all close-calls nationwide. In August, the alliance called for steps to make drone use safer in the wake of various incidents that the group said put passengers, planes and airports at risk. The steps include stricter enforcement of “No Fly Zones,” better drone technology, mandatory training for drone users, air-traffic-control monitoring, and education for people who live near airports about the dangers and penalties of flying drones in the area.

“It defies reason that unmanned aircrafts are putting the lives of thousands of passengers in danger without clear consequences,” Joe Sitt, the chairman and founder of the alliance, said in a news release. “It is past time for the F.A.A. to step up and protect the nation’s most crowded airspace for the 117 million passengers who use it every year.”

The F.A.A. has certain rules in place for recreational aircraft use, but it is obvious from the close-call statistics that plenty of drone operators are unaware of them or ignore them. In May, as legions of tourists prepared to visit Washington, D.C., and the area for summer vacations, the administration issued a news release saying that Washington was a “no drone zone.”

“Enjoy your visit to the nation’s capital,” the F.A.A. said. “Bring your family, your cameras and plenty of sunscreen. Just don’t bring your drone.”

Can we extend that to the rest of the states, not to mention Roman amphitheaters in the French countryside? As an admirer of travel videos, I am wowed by the capabilities of the selfie-drone. That doesn’t mean I care to watch play-by-play footage of my vacation. Or spend that vacation hauling a drone in my handbag. Alas, the genie is out of the bottle. The selfie-drone is coming.

All I can do now is make a wish: that certain beaches, gardens and ancient ruins become no-drone zones, too, so that travelers who appreciate tranquillity may be lucky enough to steal a quiet moment in them.