Verizon, the US’s largest wireless telecom company, is developing technology with NASA to direct and monitor America’s growing fleet of civilian and commercial drones from its network of phone towers.
According to documents obtained by the Guardian, Verizon signed an agreement last year with NASA “to jointly explore whether cell towers … could support communications and surveillance of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) at low altitudes”.
That $500,000 project is now underway at NASA’s Ames Research Center in the heart of Silicon Valley. NASA is planning the first tests of an air traffic control system for drones there this summer, with Verizon scheduled to introduce a concept for using cell coverage for data, navigation, surveillance and tracking of drones by 2017. The phone company hopes to finalise its technology by 2019.
NASA’s new UAS (unmanned aircraft system) traffic management operation is intended to enable safe low-altitude drone flights within the next four years. At the moment, there is little to stop operators flying wherever they want. The agency would like technology that will automatically “geo-fence” drones to keep them away from sensitive areas like the White House, ground drones in bad weather, help them to avoid buildings and each other while flying and decide which drones have priority in congested airspaces.
According to the documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the purpose of the agreement is to “jointly explore if cell towers and communications could possibly support Unmannned Aerial Systems (UAS) Traffic Management (UTM) for communications and surveillance of UAS at low altitudes”. The focus is “exploratory” since “the requiremements and technology paths [for commercial drones] have not been clearly defined by the FAA”.
In February, the Federal Aviation Authority released its proposals for regulating commercial drones. The FAA proposal would allow drones weighing up to 55lb to fly within sight of their remote pilots during daylight hours at heights below 500ft and at speeds of less than 100mph.
“The problem is that we really cannot add any more capacity to the regular air traffic control system,” says Missy Cummings, professor of aeronautics at Duke University. “Radar coverage at low altitude is very spotty, and we don’t have the technology or the people to put a tracking device on each drone.”
NASA is considering monitoring drones with a range of sensors including radar, orbiting satellites and cellphone signals. The UTM system is also likely to be cloud-based, meaning that drones will need an internet link to download information about weather, traffic and restricted zones. That combination makes using the existing phone networks very attractive. “Cellphone technology will help to communicate information about other aircraft and we can already track phones like crazy,” says Cummings. “It’s a nice alternative to saturating an already broken air traffic control system.”
“I don’t see a privacy problem with leveraging cell towers,” says Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington, where he teaches a class on robotic law and policy. “If a centralised place is keeping track of these things, we would have some accountability. I don’t believe anybody thinks we should have anonymous drones the way we should have anonymous web surfing.”
Drones would still need on-board sensors to navigate and avoid obstacles in the event that their data connection failed or they flew too far from a cell tower. One of Verizon’s advantages is that it is the largest provider of wireless communications in the US, with an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 towers across the country and the most extensive high-speed 4G LTE network.
But building a robust air traffic control system that can follow and respond in real time to thousands, or even tens of thousands, of drones is a massive undertaking that would stretch Nasa’s shrinking budget. “The whole NASA UTM effort is incredibly underfunded,” says Missy Cummings. “I don’t see any real advancements coming from that programme until the government puts a lot more money behind it.”
In the meantime, NASA is turning to industry for help. In a presentation last September, John Cavolowsky, director of Nasa’s Airspace Operations and Safety programme, wrote: “All demonstrations are to be planned with strong, cost-shared partner involvement.” Last February, Nasa invited interested businesses to a workshop on the future of UTM. In its agreement with Verizon, Nasa reveals: “The workshop was very well attended with cellphone companies such as AT&T and Verizon. To date, only Verizon has stepped forward to pursue collaboration with NASA regarding the potential use of cell towers.”
Luckily, other large technology companies were more receptive. Google and Amazon, which are currently building rival delivery drones, have also signed agreements with Nasa to test their systems at Ames. The Guardian has obtained copies of both contracts. Google will spend $450,000 putting its self-driving cars through their paces at Ames, as well as sharing data with Nasa from Project Wing drone simulations, experiments and operational tests.
Amazon is even more ambitious, committing $1.8m to tests of its Prime Air drones as well as producing algorithms, technical papers and concepts to help shape the UTM project. In return, NASA will approve drone and crew certification, organise the field trials at Ames and conduct “mishap investigations” if anything goes wrong.
The real benefit for Google and Amazon, however, is likely to be further down the line. In its agreement with Amazon, the space agency notes: “The UTM system could be developed and tested to accommodate both [Amazon’s] delivery operations and those of other operators.”
That worries Ryan Calo. “You don’t want Nasa to maximise this for delivery,” he says. “NASA should be thoughtful from the outset about creating a versatile infrastructure that doesn’t privilege one particular application. If you only listen to Google and Amazon, you maybe end up sweeping other stakeholders aside.”
Source: The Guardian