U.S. government lawmakers are assembling a regulatory framework that will allow drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) to fill the country's skies, whether they are delivering life-saving medicines, bringing down enemy aircraft, or simply getting a pizza to you in 15 minutes or less.
Key to that effort is a new U.S. Department of Transportation program which relies on select drone industry companies and organizations to help the U.S. experiment with cutting-edge drones and the software that drives them.
"Data gathered from these pilot projects will form the basis of a new regulatory framework to safely integrate drones into our national airspace," says U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao.
Specifically, the program will focus on hardware and software that enables drones to fly well beyond the line of sight, often for hours and often without requiring remote piloting by a human being.
Dubbed the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program, the effort pulls together drone companies that have already demonstrated success in drone delivery, as well as software makers that specialize in packages that help manage drone airspace.
"The days aren't far off when millions of drones will be flying in the airspace," says Mark Blanks, director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership. "When you're looking at an expansion of that scale, it's critical to make sure it's being handled carefully and safely."
Adds Adam Robertson, chief technology officer of self-described "AI-enabled airspace security and safety" vendor Fortem Technologies, "Within 10 years, drone flight will be as common place as FedEx delivery or an Uber ride. People and goods will take to the skies and highly reliable computers and software will be the key to coordination of a safe airspace."
UAV use in the U.S. likely will be heaviest initially in rural America, places where conflicts with traditional air traffic will be minimal and the need for super-fast alternatives for emergency and delivery services is the greatest, according to Amit Regev, vice president of product for Tel Aviv, Israel-based Flytrex, a company that, according to its website, "offers an end-to-end delivery solution using automated drones controlled over the cloud using a smart and easy control dashboard."
Moreover, those drone-filled skies will need to be safeguarded against enemy drones attempting to penetrate U.S. airspace, which is why the DOT included in the program companies like Salt Lake City, UT-based Fortem, which makes drone defense software. Fortem says its software can track thousands of objects, each smaller than a soda can, traveling at high velocity across the sky. Should a 'wrong drone' be detected, Fortem offers the DroneHunter, a remote-controlled UAV (which comes in commercial and military versions) that can shoot a net over a threatening drone, causing the offending aircraft to crash or be dragged to the ground for further examination.
"Each of Fortem's products rely on various forms of machine learning and artificial intelligence," Robertson says. "Fortem heavily employs algorithms that dynamically adjust to the changing nature of the scene over time and retain elements of memory to maximize the quality of drone detections."
Similar software likely will be used by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to continuously monitor and manage drones in the nation's airspace, much in the same way the agency now relies on computers to continuously manage airplanes in its airspace.
Ernest Earon, chief technology officer of Raleigh, NC-based PrecisionHawk, which makes software that enables users to fly drones as well as review, process, and analyze the data associated with those flights, observes that "Computers will need to be running the logistics, flight planning, de-confliction, and routing for all of these aircraft. We'll see a small number of operators managing and overseeing a large network of drones, with software performing all of the time critical and mundane aspects of the operations."
Vigilant Aerospace Systems of Oklahoma City, OK, makes software that provides detect-and-avoid functions for unmanned aircraft, along with airspace management tools for ground-based command centers. The software uses data from sensors onboard the drones to detect and track other aircraft, predict trajectories and collisions and calculate avoidance maneuvers for either a remote, human pilot or automated pilot software, according to CEO Kraettli L. Epperson. "We think it is likely that tens to hundreds of drones will be managed and monitored continuously from central control centers with humans providing oversight, but not manually conducting every maneuver on every flight."
Epperson adds, "Eventually, we believe autonomous systems will incorporate the necessary hardware and onboard computing power and software to conduct most operations without any human intervention."
DOT is also relying on Cape Aerial Telepresence of Redwood City, CA, , to help ensure drones fly safely. Cape CEO Chris Rittler says his firm's platform "leverages AI to ensure for safe operations and to make Cape-enabled drones virtually 'uncrashable' through geofencing and the setting of minimum and maximum altitudes."
Once all the air management software is in place, drone companies will be able zigzag across the horizon, making lifesaving deliveries to desperate people below -- or simply ensuring people get their pizza in 15 minutes or less.
Ironically, even something as mundane as a pizza delivery will require military-like precision. Explains Flytrex's Regev, "Our cloud system studies and processes feedback collected from other drones and other sensors across the delivery site to better optimize flight routes in real-time, or, assess risk level for each mission at a given time."
Below are the organizations participating in the DOT's program. Many rely on the services of drone hardware and software companies to realize their project visions:
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