The Federal Aviation Administration is facing significant problems with integrating drones into US airspace. The AP reports that plans for modernizing air traffic control can't cover the unique challenges posed by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), given that they were made years before drones were used for more than military missions. "It's becoming painfully apparent that in order to get [drones] in there, there is going to have to be a fair amount of accommodation, at least in the beginning," National Air Traffic Controllers Association representative Chris Stephenson is quoted as saying.
That's going to add yet another set of goals for NextGen, an FAA program that promises to create a nationwide satellite-based location tracking system, provide better tools for sharing information, and update aging technology. Launched in 2004, NextGen has made progress on these projects, but it's also been consistently over budget and behind schedule. And large drones — which are currently mostly used for surveillance but could also carry commercial cargo or even wireless internet signals — throw a wrench in its current plans. "We didn't understand the magnitude to which [drones] would be an oncoming tidal wave, something that must be dealt with, and quickly," says NextGen administrator Ed Bolton.
An 'oncoming tidal wave' of drones
Among other things, the AP says NextGen's planned computer system can't handle the complex flight plans of drones that stay in the air for days, weeks, or someday years (though super-long-range craft like the Facebook "internet drone" shown above would likely fly above normal airspace.) Right now, they move slower than commercial planes, creating the risk of an aerial traffic jam. And that's leaving aside the whole problem of creating a certification system comparable to the one for manned planes and their pilots.
The situation may be brighter for the drones people are actually worried about right now: small machines that fly under 400 feet, like existing aerial photography craft and Amazon's proposed fleet of octocopters. The FAA currently bans most commercial use of these drones, although many companies have flouted that rule with mixed results. But hobbyists can already fly them in unpopulated areas, and the FAA is supposed to have rules for businesses in place by 2015; it's currently approved some limited use. The agency, once again, appears behind schedule and potentially likely to miss the deadline due to problems figuring out drone certification procedures and making sure they're able to sense and avoid other aircraft. Earlier this month, NASA said it was working on an automated air traffic control system for drones that fly around 400 to 500 feet. Even with these problems unresolved, though, the FAA is much closer to putting small commercial UAVs in the air than larger, high-flying ones.