- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 17, 2019

Aerospace engineers are rushing to develop a nationwide air traffic control system for drones to bring order to the chaotic skies above the nation’s airports and military installations.

With more than 1.4 million registered drones and an unknown number of unregistered devices in use, close calls between unmanned aerial vehicles and commercial aircraft continue to rise, putting the nation’s air transportation network at risk.

“The culture of aircraft is heavily regulated and safe. Drones have arrived very quickly and come a long way very fast, and there is a lot of catching up to do, but it is happening,” said David Hose, CEO of AirMap, a California-based firm pioneering UAV air traffic control systems.

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While the U.S. government works on regulations to track drones and identify their users in real-time, the UAV industry is rolling out aerial delivery services and an expanding array of commercial uses.

Late last month at the nation’s premier drone conference in Las Vegas, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine urged the industry to barrel forward and equip a major city with “the ability to control hundreds of unmanned aerial systems” by 2028.

“They could be carrying cargo or could be carrying people, doing thousands of missions every day,” Mr. Bridenstine said.

Mr. Hose told The Washington Times that drones present a challenge resembling the emergence of automobiles 100 years ago on roads populated by horses and pedestrians. The difference: Drones can distract airline pilots and severely damage aircraft.

Considering how to manage drone-filled skies, engineers at AirMap are experimenting with aerospace and defense giant Raytheon, the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA to create a UAV air traffic control system.

Raytheon supplies technology for air traffic controllers to track sequence and spacing for more than 40,000 daily civilian and military flights. AirMap’s technology allows air traffic controllers to better see drones, especially UAVs flying suspiciously or dangerously.

The FAA, which regulates drones, prohibits their flight in controlled airspaces and generally bans them from within 5 miles of airports.

But drone operators, either intentionally or by mistake, often breach that barrier. Newark Liberty International Airport, just outside New York City, had drone sightings temporarily halt air traffic earlier this year.

Late last month, the crew of a JetBlue flight approaching Boston’s Logan International Airport reported a drone at about 3,500 feet, far higher than FAA regulations permit, the second such sighting at Logan in as many weeks.

The latest issue of the International Journal of Aviation, Aeronautics and Aerospace includes a study underscoring pilots’ problems with drones.

Researchers from Oklahoma State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University found that skilled pilots approaching runways usually do not see drones in motion and hardly ever detect them when they are hovering.

“Statistics on pilot sightings of drones continue to increase year over year, and what is being reported by pilots is probably just the tip of the iceberg,” Ryan Wallace, Embry-Riddle assistant professor of aeronautical science, said in an email. “The vast majority of the time, unmanned aircraft are not being seen by pilots.”

Another major safety issue concerns airspace above major public events such as concerts or the Super Bowl.

The company 34 North Drones, based in Burbank, California, develops radar to protect these spaces, especially the ability to decipher between bumbling hobbyists and criminals intent on harm.

Jay Keith of 34 North Drones told The Times that the FAA does not allow drones to be shot down but some firms work with federal security agencies that do have the authority to bring down suspicious drones over public events.

“Keeping the skies safe is a serious challenge, but the threat can be overhyped,” Mr. Keith said.

The FAA held the first National Drone Safety Awareness Week this month with more than 125 events across all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

The programs praised UAV use by law enforcement and emergency services, including aerial shipments of blood, prescription drugs, organs for transplant and antivenom for snakebites.

In an email to The Times, FAA officials said they also emphasized the need for recreational drone owners to officially register their wares, including ID cards for operators and tags for each drone with the corresponding registration number.

The FAA is also starting to allow experimental “drone corridors” where commercial operators can fly deliveries beyond the line of sight, a new development.

Walgreens and FedEx began testing drone deliveries last month through a Google subsidiary in Christiansburg, Virginia. Another FAA-approved program involves UPS, which flies goods around a WakeMed hospital campus in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“If you have not seen a drone yet, you will soon,” Mr. Hose said.

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