Airware partners with NASA to develop drone air traffic control system

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Credit: Signe Brewster

News broke last week that NASA is building an air traffic control system for unmanned aerial vehicles that could affect everything from Amazon’s delivery drones to agricultural drones. It turns out that it’s not working on the project alone: San Francisco drone startup Airware is helping.

Early on, the system will require human involvement, Kallman said. But eventually it will be automatic. The drones and air traffic control system would check in with each other and make decisions about flight times and paths on their own.

The network would not blanket the entire U.S. Instead, it would only cover areas that are likely to have congested drone traffic, Kallman said — likely cities and agricultural and industrial zones. The network could also be quickly deployed in a new area, including in the case of an emergency.

“The end goal is … it’s an automatic system that knows how to manage airspace and traffic in the area,” Kallman said. “Maybe it’s not a permanent fixture in that area. But on demand, you could set something up and now you could have more of a congested operations environment in a new place.”

Kallman said NASA and Airware are already working on the system, and will likely keep working on it for four to five more years. That should carry into the time commercial drones are expected to be legalized in the U.S.

“Obviously a lot of people are frustrated with regulations in the U.S. and the speed things are going,” Kallman said. “I think it’s great to … develop the system and help the FAA look at alternatives for how to operate small systems at low altitudes.”

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