NASA's Highway In The Sky For Drones

Dr. Parimal Kopardekar is currently the Principal Investigator of the NASA’s NextGen Airspace Project. One of his current projects is the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Traffic Management System (UTM) - a “highway in the sky.”

Dr. Kopardekar explains:

The UTM construct is based on our research on the operator airspace; Class A,B,C and D. UTM is focused on Class G airspace because all of these operations will be in low altitudes. But the components of air space design – separation management, scheduling, demand capacity imbalance, contingency management [i.e. a 24-esqu hostile takeover], trajectory definition and prediction, wind and weather integration- that we have been working with for commercial carriers and upper airspace will be similar.

We need to make adjustments, for example, to the trajectory definition and prediction because UAS will fly slower and at lower altitude, with different susceptibility to wind etc. We are going to use the lessons learned from the work we have been doing for nearly 20 years and adapt it to UTM.

Screen Shot 2014-07-09 at 3.47.13 PMHowever, despite these lessons learned, Class G airspace (generally defined as under 1,200 feet above ground level) is roughly uncharted territory. Plus, human beings live in that airspace. As such, the aerial network will need to be incredibly precise.

So how do we safely accommodate these flying lawnmowers into the airspace above playgrounds and hospitals? By tapping into the so-called internet of things.

In order to accommodate low executed airspace operations we need a system. Right now there is no system. You can imagine how that could be chaos when everybody just starts to fly in the airspace.

It’s just like cars and roads; someone has to make sure that the cars have safety standards, that they won’t stop or turn in the middle of the road on their own. Once you do that, you say “how do I accommodate all the industries and folks who will be driving the cars? You need roads, stop signs; you need lanes -one lane that goes one way and another lane that is coming back the other way. And that’s what we are after.

Science fiction fans have long visualized a "highway in the sky". I first saw it on The Jetson's in the early 1960's.


(Average traffic in the Jetson's view of the future)

More recently, Star Wars fans have been mesmerized by traffic patterns above Coruscant.


(Traffic above Coruscant)

Read Philip K. Dick's description of a traffic jam in the spacelanes in this excerpt from his 1954 short story Sales Pitch:

Commute ships roared on all sides, as Ed Morris made his way wearliy home to Earth at the end of a long hard day at the office. The Ganymede-Terra lanes were choked with exhausted, grim-faced businessmen; Jupiter was in opposition to Earth and the trip was a good two hours. Every few million miles the great flow slowed to a grinding, agonized halt; signal-lights flashed as streams from Mars and Saturn fed into the main traffic-arteries.

Via Dronelife.

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