By 2020, it is estimated that 7 million drones will be flying around the country delivering packages, taking photos, inspecting infrastructure or conducting search and rescue missions. However, before that happens, we will need a system in place to avoid collisions –between the drones themselves, building, people, and most importantly, passenger aircraft. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), along with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and industry partners, have been researching the requirements needed to establish a drone traffic management system. The hope is to test out those systems this summer.

Unlike the air traffic management system that we currently have, the drone traffic management system won’t rely on human controllers perched in towers; instead, drone operators will use an electronic system to get access to constraint notifications and input flight information. And drone operators will be expected to follow the FAA’s operational rules. Eventually, the system will be autonomous. The research is scheduled to be finished by 2019, which in turn will lead to ideas for this drone traffic management system to be implemented by the FAA no later than 2025. In the end, the FAA will not be creating the entire electronic traffic management system; instead that task will largely be handled by companies that are already developing drone navigation and communication software, or drone manufacturers that want to create their own system. Here are some of the major requirements and challenges to drone traffic management:

  • Tracking the Weather: Small drones are much more susceptible to weather changes because they fly low. As such, drones will need to be properly spaced out just like manned aircraft. But tools have not yet been developed to predict how weather will affect small drones flying around obstacles such as buildings or hills at such low altitude.
  • Making Complete Maps: Many industry leaders see a future where drones will not only be flying in the skies in swarms, but they will be flying completely autonomously, so data about their surroundings will be a key to traffic management. The navigation of a drone will require more than just a basic street map. In addition to locations of physical buildings, navigation systems will also need to pick up dynamic data — information that changes in real time and enables drones to steer clear of dangerous or restricted areas, much like driverless cars are doing now.
  • Dialing Up Directions: Drones currently cannot fly beyond their operators’ visual line of sight unless they get a waiver from the FAA. But NASA is already testing what drones will need if they’re allowed to fly further away–location tracking handled through technology including satellites and cellular networks, which is why telecommunications providers are working with NASA.
  • A Common Language: Drones will need to “talk” to each other and exchange information. NASA, the FAA and the industry will have to figure out the exact types of information that need to pass from one type of drone operating system to another. The systems will also need a common communication protocol and consistent cybersecurity practices. However, many drone manufacturers and software developers, may resist passing potentially proprietary data to competitors.

As this area evolves we will see more challenges, but surely, more solutions as the FAA, NASA and industry leaders push forward to integrate drones into the National Air Space.