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The Impending Drone Highway

With all of the developments in drone technology and research of various use cases, what has prevented drones from being adopted into widespread use by a company or government?

Though drones are now easy to produce and disseminate, no major company has actually implemented drones like we assumed would happen when Amazon filed their patent for a drone delivery network in 2015.  The patent outlined a “beehive” or cone-shaped system that could be built vertically within city limits, from which drones could deliver packages and return to the hive autonomously.

Additionally, there have been successful use case studies that show how drones are adept at delivering lifesaving products to those where disaster has rendered roadways impassable or medical equipment is not readily available in rural environments.  The company Zipline has started delivering blood transfusions to rural hospitals in Rwanda, and have plans to test out this delivery system in North Carolina as well.  Most recently, a Maryland test flight was able to show that drones could help transport lifesaving organ donations from one hospital to another, avoiding delays that are caused by congestion and bad weather. However, it could be dangerous and not cost effective for various organizations and companies to starting using drones in these capacities without a cohesive network to guide their flight patterns. 

First Step – Develop a Network of Safe Flight Patterns

A main problem that has gained the attention and research of NASA is figuring out a way to manage the air traffic below 400 feet. In the past few years, NASA has been developing an Unmanned Aircraft  System (UAS) Traffic Management (UTM) system, which will eventually act as a permanent airspace system like the one used for larger planes at higher altitudes.  Additionally, they are developing a portable portable version of the UTM that could move to different geographical areas to serve during disaster relief efforts.  The secondary type of system would allow for an organized transport network to be deployed quickly following a disaster, allowing for drones to provide immediate relief in a safe and reliable way.  These networks are especially important because the evolution of drones will allow them to operate out of sight of the pilot, resulting in drones covering larger distances.  That is where things will become more complicated.

The problem stems from a simple, and yet highly complex, problem of figuring out how to regulate the movement of these small unmanned aircraft in the airspace above highly populated areas like cities.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for ensuring that airplanes avoid midair collisions, and so they have banned drones within range of major airports.  However, this does not address the problem of how to structure air design, corridors, and severe weather/wind avoidance above major cities so that your amazon prime delivery drone can operate safely in the airspace next to your flying GrubHub delivery bot.  We need an airspace network that grants access like our highway system, yet with the regulations and security of our higher altitude airspace.

Successful Test Flights by NASA and the FAA

This type of system is exactly what NASA has successfully been testing in the state of Arizona, with plans to pass off the next stage of developing integration requirements to the FAA in 2019.  So far, the test flights have occurred in six different geographic locations to apply the various flight scenarios in different environments, such as mountains, farms, and deserts. The flight scenarios ranged from surveying or inspecting pipelines to package deliveries to stranded hikers, miners, and flood victims.  Then, the various scenarios were tested simultaneously to represent real-world situations.  The flights were observed by a ground surveillance systems and airborne surveillance systems that were then integrated into the UTM, which happens to have a prototype architecture built as a partnership between NASA and the FAA.

While the system is still in its early stages, the rest of us will probably need to wait until it clears all testing phases before we see Amazon send out packages by drone.  But soon enough, drones might be delivering blood transfusions to the scene of accidents or lifesaving supplies to those that are trapped in the aftermath of natural disasters.  Once the integral details are complete, the path for drones to go mainstream in their applications will be ready for all of the ingenious uses we can imagine.