Drone Makers Seek Traffic Control

NASA-backed software could orchestrate urban skies

Drones fly during a demonstration in Sausalito, Calif., on June 9, 2014.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

The commercial use of drones remains mostly illegal in the U.S. All the same, businesses are moving ahead with ways to profit from the small helicopters, with some assistance from the Federal Aviation Administration. In February the FAA, which is preparing drone rules, agreed to exempt State Farm from the prohibition, letting the insurer test the use of drones in claim inspections. On March 19 the agency granted Amazon.com a waiver to continue testing its package-delivery drones. And in Portland, Ore., startup SkyWard is pushing forward with a drone traffic control system that will allow thousands of the machines to fly through cities without colliding with one another or endangering people.

SkyWard is working with NASA and the world’s three largest drone makers—DJI in China, 3D Robotics in the U.S., and Parrot in France—to demonstrate that swarms of drones can safely coexist in crowded airspace. “It’s about applying the regulatory framework to a new kind of aviation infrastructure,” says co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Evans. The software project, Urban SkyWays, is designed to resemble a conventional air traffic control system at altitudes of 1,200 feet or lower, says Parimal Kopardekar, who manages NASA’s experiments on drone coordination and whose researchers are contributing their time to the project.

Urban SkyWays would load SkyWard’s cloud software onto each drone and the computer used by its pilot, says Marcos Osorno, SkyWard’s chief technology officer. The software plots the paths of all drones equipped with it, so a dispatcher working for a company such as Amazon or UPS could log on to the system to file a flight plan and receive an automatically generated route, from pickup point to destination, to help a drone avoid other machines. The flight plans will also take into account local and federal regulations. “The first question our system has to answer is, ‘Where is it safe to fly?’ ” Osorno says.

At this point, not very many places, and not very far. If adopted, the FAA’s rules for commercial drones will restrict flights to their operators’ line of sight. They would also ban flights above unprotected bystanders. Although the FAA acknowledges that technological advances may persuade it to tweak or rewrite the draft rules, slated to take effect in the next year or so, there are no guarantees.

Evans says his work as a helicopter pilot left him confident that drones can operate safely in cities. “I flew in the low airspace in urban areas all the time,” he says. “There are rules of the road up there, and SkyWard is extending them to drones.” Evans and Osorno met while flying U.S. Army helicopters in Germany more than a decade ago. Evans later flew medical choppers in Anchorage and Portland.

SkyWard and its partners plan to make money from annual subscriptions paid by drone operators to use the traffic control software. For now, SkyWard is consulting and working with companies on drone-pilot training and compliance with FAA regulations. In July the 12-employee company received $1.5 million in venture funding from Voyager Capital, Draper Associates, and Toivo Annus, the former engineering chief at Skype. It declined to disclose revenue.

Exelis, a major U.S. defense contractor, will unveil a drone-focused companion to its manned aircraft tracking system this month, according to program manager Christian Ramsey. The SkyWard engineers say their expertise in low airspace and the participation of the three leading drone makers give them an edge. Besides, Evans says, drone traffic control is more akin to managing “flying cell phones” than Boeing 747s.

SkyWard and its partners are planning demonstrations of their traffic control software from May through September in London, Vancouver, Las Vegas, and Portland. Osorno and Evans say they’re spending most of their time working out demo routines that will be duly impressive—and safe.

3D Robotics has raised $110 million to bring commercial drones to the mainstream. “Doing it safely and responsibly is a big part of that,” says CEO Chris Anderson. “We’re very much counting on SkyWard to ensure the way.”

The bottom line: Commercial drones are still mostly illegal in the U.S., but the industry and NASA are working to keep them from colliding.

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