From spaceships to quadcopters: NASA plans drone traffic system

By Nathaniel Mott , written on September 2, 2014

From The News Desk

NASA wants to help make sure the rollout of commercial drones in the United States won't lead to injuries, collisions, or mass hysteria. The New York Times reports that the agency is working on a drone traffic control system meant to manage the chaos of our future drone-filled skies.

A system like that will become increasingly important as more businesses use drones to deliver goods, take photos, or make Disneyland a little more exciting. As Pando's David Holmes explained when Amazon asked the FAA for permission to test its drones over its own property,

This is a crucial time for private drones. Tech companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook want them, and with their increasingly close ties to Washington, DC, they will probably get them, one way or another. What matters is that, as exemptions and other laws are passed with regard to drones, these statutes are written in a way that protect citizens from both surveillance and drone copter blades that have caused all manners of injuries to hobbyists.

It’s also crucial for resources to be allocated toward enforcing these rules. Otherwise we’ll find ourselves in the same situation we’re now in regarding data privacy — where we gave everything away and didn’t even realize it until it was too late. Drones are perhaps the most polarizing technology available today. On one hand, the idea of delivering pizza with a little robot should be enough to make all the people who complain about not having jetpacks or hover cars shut up for a while. On the other, drones have already injured many hobbyists, caused a scare when one flew too close to a NYPD helicopter, and have massive implications for anyone who cares about their remaining shreds of privacy.

That last concern has been the focus of many drone critics. As Adam Penenberg wrote in a Pando series devoted to imagining futures where certain technologies go horribly wrong,

So what will our world look like when drones in all flavors and sizes fill the air almost like WiFi and cellular network waves do today? Imagine packs of flying robots flitting to and fro, keeping tabs on neighborhoods, pulling advertising banners like planes do over some Long Island beaches on Memorial Day weekend. See that bird on a wire? Maybe it’s not really a bird: It’s a drone with wings, dispatched there to keep an eye on something or someone. You thought it was disturbing that the NSA could sift through your phone calls, email, and Web journeys? Imagine if a drone could shadow a person’s every move from thousands of feet up. Unlike CCTVs in London, these drones could be dispatched by anyone – a divorce attorney, private investigator, gossip blog operator, jealous lover, prankster or perv.
Allowing NASA to create a drone traffic control system might help ease some of those fears. The agency is usually tasked with handling space ships and robots tasked with wandering Mars -- it can probably handle a few miniature quadcopters tasked with flying around plain old Earth. If drones can be kept away from buildings, each other, and sensitive areas like airports, the fear of having a bunch of 'em flying around during every waking moment seems a little less dire.

It wouldn't do anything to ease fears about companies like Facebook or Google taking their all-seeing eyes to the skies, nor would it make it easier to believe that every drone you see is being flown by a hobbyist instead of some government agency or another, but it would be a start. Now we'll just need to see if the FAA allows NASA to implement such a system, and how companies will react to having their drones instructed by someone who isn't looking to make a quick buck.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]