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NASA Developing System To Manage Drone Traffic


And it's not just the Department of Transportation and FAA that are looking into ways to deal with the increasing number of drones in the skies. This year, drones have gotten in the way of aircraft fighting wildfires. They've crashed into stadiums. And the problem may just grow bigger as companies like Amazon imagine ways to put drones to work for deliveries. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Daniel Potter reports NASA is working on a system to manage drone traffic.

DANIEL POTTER, BYLINE: Carl Weingarten's sleek, white hobby drone weighs less than a sack of groceries.


POTTER: When it takes off from a park in Oakland, the tiny rotors kick up a miniature wash of dust in the dead grass.

CARL WEINGARTEN: I'm going to send it up here a few feet just to make sure it's going to behave right.

POTTER: Drones like this one can be finicky. The battery lasts all of 10 minutes, and Weingarten says he's crashed a few.

WEINGARTEN: Twice I let the battery go out. I'd lost track of time. You get mesmerized when you're - it's up in the air. And they fell into the water. I lost them.

POTTER: Weingarten sees a promising future for drones even though they aren't perfect - not just making deliveries. Someday, they could save lives, maybe inspecting dangerous antenna towers or searching rough terrain for lost tigers.

PARIMAL KOPARDEKAR: If you postulate that future, then all of a sudden you say, hey, how do I manage all of these vehicles in the sky at the same time?

POTTER: That's NASA's principal investigator for drone traffic management, Parimal Kopardekar at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. Kopardekar says drones are on their way to flying without human supervision. It's kind of like with cars.

KOPARDEKAR: Regardless whether you are - start driving autonomous car or human driving the car, you still need some way to organize the traffic on the road.

POTTER: So we need a system to coordinate flight plans for thousands of drones. And it has to steer them away from danger, to map out no-fly zones. Kopardekar calls that geo-fencing. For instance, fencing drones out of the space near an airport. NASA is developing the technology that will manage this future of busy skies full of drones. The agency just finished the first of what will be four phases. This virtual test run from engineer Tom Prevot came with a touch of whimsy.

TOM PREVOT: We're simulating, for example, a pizza delivery operation in downtown San Francisco (laughter) in here. So we've got pie one through pie three.

POTTER: Prevot was showing off a simulation of the Bay Area as dozens of drones fly overhead. Flight plans that don't work the system kicks back.

PREVOT: For example, here we have a Caltrain inspection that was rejected, it says because for this flight, that would basically go along the bay here, right now I would be violating a number of controlled airspace classes.

POTTER: Like San Francisco International Airport. Prevot says someday, when you see a drone overhead, you should be able to point your smartphone at it and see, oh, what's going on by the neighbors window? Pizza time, got it.

HANNAH-BETH JACKSON: Do we really need drones to deliver pizza?

POTTER: California state Senator Hannah Beth Jackson's proposal to keep drones from flying low, say next to someone's back porch, was recently vetoed. She says drones may have worthwhile uses, but she's concerned about the trade-off with thousands buzzing overhead just for convenient deliveries.

JACKSON: Do we want them flying over our yard to get to our neighbor in such a way that it disrupts our peace and quiet, that potentially it could crash, that our kids can't play in the backyard anymore because these things are flying all over the place?

POTTER: Ultimately, it will be up to the Federal Aviation Administration to set drone traffic policy. The FAA starts testing the first phase of NASA's system next year. For NPR News, I'm Daniel Potter in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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