Drone with GoPro digital camera mounted underneath - 22 April 2013In 2013 Jeff Bezos unveiled his vision of drones delivering packages to Amazon customers. At the time, this idea struck many people as science fiction. Fast forward to 2016 and drones are poised to become the go-to technology for delivering packages, monitoring agriculture, gathering news in urban environments, and even conducting search and rescue missions.

One problem with drone flight is the potential for collisions.  This potential for high risk collisions has led engineers and scientists to collaborate on possible preventive measures that could be implemented.

Before drone aviation can become pervasive, there needs to be a new infrastructure to define low-altitude avenues of flight, regulate traffic in congested areas, and prevent collisions.

On this front, the Stanford Intelligent Systems Laboratory (SISL) is part of a broad partnership led by NASA Ames to create an unpiloted aerial system traffic management system, or UTM, to manage the expected surge in these kind of flights.

“UTM is meant to fulfill a lot of the functions of air traffic control, but it will be in the cloud and largely automated,” says SISL Director Mykel Kochenderfer, assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University.

NASA envisions that the UTM system will be able to support the orchestration of a huge number of drone operations without air traffic control operators monitoring each and every vehicle in the air. A key attribute of this system will involve automated conflict avoidance—software that can alert multiple drones when a collision is possible, and calculate the maneuvers necessary to avoid it.

“You’re not going to hire another 30,000 people just to handle the traffic from drones. It’s just not feasible.”

Kochenderfer recently coauthored a new paper with mechanical engineering graduate student Hao Yi Ong in which they detail a conflict-avoidance algorithm that, when implemented within the UTM system, will minimize the threat of low-altitude, unpiloted collisions.

“The sheer projected number of drones would make it impractical to replicate the human-operated air traffic control system to regulate drone flights”, Ong says.

Today the Federal Aviation Administration has 15,000 human controllers to manage roughly 87,000 pilot-driven flights per day. The thought of hiring an additional 30,000 people to manage drone traffic is just not feasible.

Amazon’s drone projections alone could dwarf those numbers. Ong has conservatively estimated that Amazon Prime’s roughly 40 million subscribers could generate 130,000 drone deliveries per normal shopping day. And that’s before accounting for the dozens of other companies including Google and Matternet that are also developing commercial drone operations.



Image: By Don McCullough, Drone and Moon, CC BY 2.0 

Source: Ian Chipman for Stanford UniversityPosted by Tom Abate-Stanford CC By 4.0