University of Nevada, Reno researchers work with NASA on drone traffic control

LAS VEGAS — Nevada researchers are trying to bring order to the skies by joining forces with NASA to test an air traffic control system for drones.

A University of Nevada, Reno team will be one of 12 groups to test drone software at NASA’s Crows Landing Airport in California later this month, reported the Las Vegas Sun reports. UNR is the first to create software allowing the drones to communicate with the system NASA is developing.

The project is out of the space agency’s Ames Research Center. The goal is to create a system the Federal Aviation Administration can use to monitor fast-flying manned and unmanned aircraft that operate at altitudes of 500 feet and below, said Richard Kelley, chief engineer at the UNR’s Nevada Advanced Autonomous Systems Innovation Center.

“There has to be a way to figure out where all the drones are,” Kelley said.

Eventually, the control system could also let drone operators and others see information about the nearby airspace.

The FAA has promised to integrate commercial drones into the nation’s airspace. The NASA system would also track gliders, helicopters and planes.

“With all of the many uses being developed for unmanned aerial systems, air traffic nearer to the ground has the potential to become very crowded,” said Warren Rapp, business director for the UNR innovation center. “We’re pleased to be part of this leading-edge, forward-thinking project.”

University researchers wrote the code that will allow a test drone to communicate information like its location, position and heading to the NASA control system.

It will test the system with Flirtey, a company that conducted the first FAA-approved drone delivery in July, and Drone America, a Reno-based firm that operates and manufactures hardware for drones.

This month’s test is only the project’s first phase. Perfecting the system is expected to take three to five years.

During the first phase of testing, NASA’s partners will record data and watch for any glitches.


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