A startup drone company called Flirtey made the first FAA-approved drone delivery in March, which means consumers are closer than ever to a world where thousands of drones populate the skyways. Beyond how cool that sounds, the implications for low-altitude traffic nightmares are naturally evident. Luckily, a solution to that problem is already in the works ahead of time.
Mykel Kochenderfer, assistant professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University, has tasked himself with answering the question: how do we stop drones from running into each other?
“I can see (drone delivery) becoming popular in the five to 10 year range,” Kochenderfer tells Inverse. “Of course there are a couple of factors. One is the maturing of the technology and the other is the regulatory aspects that still need to be sorted through. But the demonstration with the FAA is a very first step in the right direction.”
By flying between GPS waypoints and using sensors to avoid trees, light posts, and telephone wires on the way to its destination, Flirtey proved last month that it could successfully deliver a package while following the FAA regulations, beating companies like Amazon to the punch.
While this is impressive, Kochenderfer predicts it won’t be long before drones will have to contend with avoiding the flight paths of other autonomous flying machines, and current technologies don’t have a system to coordinate those movements.
NASA Ames is partnering with academia, including Kochenderfer and a team of students in the Stanford Intelligent Systems Laboratory (SISL), to develop an unmanned aerial system traffic management system (UTM) to help navigate the untested skies of low-altitude flight.
Whereas today’s drones use GPS signals to navigate, NASA envisions drones that would also connect to a central server and communicate its movements with other drones in the area to ensure efficiency and avoid collisions. The whole system would have to be automated, Kochenderfer argues, noting that the FAA hires 15,000 human controllers to manage nearly 87,000 manned flights per day, whereas Amazon alone already estimates it would make 130,000 drone deliveries a day to service 40 million Prime subscribers.
To that end, Hao Yi Ong, a mechanical engineering graduate student working with Kochenderfer, estimates the FAA would need to hire another 30,000 people to operate a human-based air traffic control system for drones. That kind of staff increase is probably not in the agency’s budget or very practical.
The hypothetical automated UTM would operate in real time to coordinate autonomous drone traffic for both deliveries and emergency supply-and-rescue operations. Although it’s currently not necessary to navigate a drone with wifi, 3G, or 4G, Kochenderfer says an internet connection would be the way UAVs would communicate with its air traffic control, and in turn, other drones. There are a number of drones that offer that type of network connectivity today, but in his lab, Kochenderfer says his team attaches a small ODroid computer to drones with a standard wifi dongle by USB.
However, there are concerns about what happens when a drone loses communication to the air traffic control server due to lack of internet connection. Kochenderfer says this is still very much an area of concern for him and his team, but perhaps efforts from Google and Mark Zuckerberg’s internet.org to deliver wifi to limited access areas will solve that problem for them.
Google’s Project Loon aims to put air balloons in the stratosphere and provide accessible wifi to these underserved areas or just everywhere. Internet.org takes a similar concept and applies it to drones. One could envision these Facebook drones could even congregate around a disaster area to provide better connectivity, not only to the people on the ground, but to other emergency drones shipping supplies into the community.
Until a clear solution presents itself, though, Kochenderfer says sensors and avoidance software is the more likely answer for those moments when connection to the internet is severed.
“Depending on the platform and the operation, it may be the case that you need some on-board collision avoidance capability,” Kochenderfer says. “For some small drones this might not be necessary, but for larger ones you’ll want one that can take evasive action when it loses link with the ground.”
Consumers are getting a taste for this technology with DJi’s Phantom 4, released earlier this year. It touts an ability to recognize obstacles and correct its flight path autonomously. Kochenderfer says UTM would have to work in tandem with similar on-board technologies to fill the gaps between internet connections.
Researchers also say that specialized landing areas would help simplify navigation issues.
“Ideally you don’t want any sort of specialized infrastructure, it would be great if packages could be lowered into your backyard like what you see in the Amazon video,” Kochenderfer says. “Other people have talked about concepts of having a delivery area or a delivery pod where packages could be delivered to, like a centralized location, and people would go to that and collect their packages rather than from their doorstep.”
Kochenderfer adds that, while no system is ever truly complete, he expects a baseline version of an autonomous drone air traffic control operating system to be ready in the next five years. Amazon already has a working delivery drone prototype, but as for when its (and other companies’) drones will take flight, that’ll be up to the FAA and these navigation systems to work out an execution plan.