VIDEO — Heads Up! NASA and Verizon to Monitor US Drone Network from Phone Towers
Jun 3, 2015
Exclusive: Federal agency is developing technology to track commercial and civilian drones via cell coverage, with first tests of air traffic control system set for this summer.
Verizon, the US’s largest wireless telecom company, is developing technology with Nasa to direct and monitor America’s growing fleet of civilian and commercial drones from its network of phone towers.
According to documents obtained by the Guardian, Verizon signed an agreement last year with Nasa “to jointly explore whether cell towers … could support communications and surveillance of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) at low altitudes”.
That $500,000 project is now underway at Nasa’s Ames Research Center in the heart of Silicon Valley. Nasa is planning the first tests of an air traffic control system for drones there this summer, with Verizon scheduled to introduce a concept for using cell coverage for data, navigation, surveillance and tracking of drones by 2017. The phone company hopes to finalise its technology by 2019.
Nasa’s new UAS (unmanned aircraft system) traffic management operation is intended to enable safe low-altitude drone flights within the next four years. At the moment, there is little to stop operators flying wherever they want. The agency would like technology that will automatically “geo-fence” drones to keep them away from sensitive areas like the White House, ground drones in bad weather, help them to avoid buildings and each other while flying and decide which drones have priority in congested airspaces.
According to the documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the purpose of the agreement is to “jointly explore if cell towers and communications could possibly support Unmannned Aerial Systems (UAS) Traffic Management (UTM) for communications and surveillance of UAS at low altitudes”. The focus is “exploratory” since “the requiremements and technology paths [for commercial drones] have not been clearly defined by the FAA”.
In February, the Federal Aviation Authority released its proposals for regulating commercial drones. The FAA proposal would allow drones weighing up to 55lb to fly within sight of their remote pilots during daylight hours at heights below 500ft and at speeds of less than 100mph.