NASA and Verizon team up to monitor and control drone flight in US

4 Jun 2015

The Guardian has obtained documents that reveal an agreement between NASA and Verizon to utilise cell towers for the surveillance and control of low-altitude commercial and civilian unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones, within four years.

NASA is planning early tests of an air traffic control system for this summer. Verizon has committed to introducing a concept for surveillance and tracking of drones over its cell network by 2017, with final tech to be designed by 2019.

The UAS Traffic Management (UTM) system will depend on radar, orbiting satellites and cellphone signals to ground drones in bad weather, help them to avoid buildings and each other, and decide which drones have priority in congested airspace.

Perhaps the most useful application of the system, in terms of security, will be the system’s facility for effectively ‘geo-fencing’ sensitive areas like the White House or, one imagines, military bases.

Curtailing drones’ ability to fly anywhere and everywhere will go a long way toward reassuring people about privacy and protection, an issue that has caused concern as drones become more prevalent in our skies.

There will, no doubt, be a knee-jerk reaction from some quarters, citing the development of this system as an infraction on privacy and freedoms.

Ryan Calo, law professor at University of Washington, told The Guardian that this should not be widespread: “I don’t believe anybody thinks we should have anonymous drones the way we should have anonymous web surfing.”

In any case, the UTM will likely be largely cloud based, requiring drones to be internet capable in order to download information about weather, traffic and restricted zones.

To some degree, this implies that use of the system will be purely voluntary, rather than strictly enforced for all drone users, rendering its applications slightly less effective.

Without 100pc usage, in-flight collisions and drone flight over restricted areas will still be possible.

Perhaps exacerbating this issue is the fact that, although Verizon is the largest provider of wireless communications in the US – an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 towers are scattered across the country – coverage is far from complete.

While NASA approached numerous carriers with the UTM proposal, Verizon was the only one to sign up. As such, there will be areas of the country that will remain unmonitored.

The UTM will take some of the pressure off existing air traffic control systems, which simply don’t have the capacity to monitor the overwhelming numbers of civilian drones.

Inconsistent radar coverage at low altitudes is also a factor making the task more difficult, according to Missy Cummings, professor of aeronautics at Duke University.

Prof Cummings is concerned about how NASA’s dwindling funds might affect the programme’s reach and effectiveness: “I don’t see any real advancements coming from that programme until the government puts a lot more money behind it.”

According to the The Guardian‘s report, some of that funding may come from Google and Amazon. NASA is in partnership with the internet giants, with plans to test the companies’ rival delivery drones at the Ames campus this year.

This is a source of concern for Calo, who worries that NASA will maximise the UTM to give priority to delivery systems, neutering what could otherwise be an incredibly versatile and equalising system.

At this point, all work towards the UTM is purely exploratory as “the requirements and technology paths [for commercial drones] have not been clearly defined by the FAA”, as stated in the agreement.

Drone image, via Shutterstock

Kirsty Tobin was careers editor at Silicon Republic