NASA is using drones to test the development of a traffic management system

The emerging technology someday could be used to deliver packages, pizzas and medical supplies

NASA has launched the final stage of a four-year effort to develop a national traffic management system for drones, testing them in cities for the first time beyond the operator’s line of sight as businesses look in the future to unleash the unmanned devices in droves above busy streets and buildings.

NASA is using drones to test the development of a traffic management system

Representational image. Reuters

Multiple drones took to the air at the same time above downtown Reno this week in a series of simulations testing emerging technology that someday will be used to manage hundreds of thousands of small unmanned commercial aircraft delivering packages, pizzas and medical supplies.

“This activity is the latest and most technical challenge we have done with unmanned aerial systems,” said David Korsmeyer, associate director of research and technology at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

An autonomous drone took off Tuesday from the rooftop of a five-story casino parking garage and landed on the roof of another out of view across the street. It hovered as onboard sensors adjusted for gusty winds before returning close to the center of the launchpad.

Equipped with GPS, others flew at each other no higher than city streetlights but were able to avoid colliding through onboard tracking systems connected to NASA’s computers on the ground.

Similar tests have been conducted in remote and rural areas. The Federal Aviation Administration has authorized individual test flights in cities before but never for multiple drones or outside the sight of the operator.

The new round of tests continuing this summer in Reno and Corpus Christi, Texas, marks the first time simulations have combined all those scenarios, said Chris Walach, executive director of the Nevada Institute of Autonomous Systems, which is running the Reno tests of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

“When we began this project four years ago, many of us wouldn’t have thought we’d be standing here today flying UAVs with advanced drone systems off high-rise buildings,” he said.

The team adopted a “crawl, walk, run” philosophy when it initiated tests in 2015, culminating with this fourth round of simulations, said Ron Johnson, project manager for unmanned aircraft systems traffic management at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

“We are definitely in the ‘run’ phase of this development here in Reno,” he said.

The results will be shared with the FAA. The agency outlined proposed rules in January that would ease restrictions on flying drones over crowds but said it won’t take final action until it finishes another regulation on identifying drones as they’re flying — something industry analysts say could be years away.

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