Every day there is more talk about the use of drones to deliver packages, even as a taxi. But nobody says that in reality that will not be possible until there is some air traffic control capable of absorbing that traffic. In addition to the current legal limits. That is precisely why NASA has allied with Uber. To develop an automated air traffic control capable of avoiding collisions and enabling that new business.
A real need
It does not matter whether it is Amazon to send packages, Telepizza to give you dinner or Uber to take you physically to the airport. All future light aerial vehicles will need some form of traffic control to avoid accidents. In order not to collide with buildings, with airplanes or other piloted flying devices, or with others of its kind. In fact, NASA is developing an air traffic control system for unmanned drones together with other organizations. Uber is the most significant of them, and the plan is for this to be ready to start testing in 2019.
Low-altitude air traffic in the future
Uber has already made several announcements of its intention to promote an aerial drone taxi service, the uberAIR. It is not clear when there will be a control system capable of monitoring the number of these vehicles that could be launched. Yes it is, that they all prefer to avoid the pilots: for packages the advantage is obvious, for taxis eliminating the pilot allows adding another passenger ...
Uber with NASA
It was at the recent aviation conference in early May in Los Angeles. Uber announced that it has signed a collaboration agreement with the American space agency. They have been given first-hand information on how they plan to start the uberAIR service. It will be as a pilot project in Dallas-Forth Worth (Texas). In return, NASA will prepare air traffic simulations over the Texas town at peak times. They will compare data to see how it works, and prepare for the next step: Los Angeles and Dubai. There he hopes to have Uber running his drone taxis by 2020.
Uber looks for urban areas with more than two million people and a density of more than 2,000 people per square mile. They have to be cities with large territories in which a drone taxi is a notable advantage in travel. They hope to be able to move at a speed between 240 and 320 km / h, hence the interest in connecting remote points in large towns. And they count on flying between specific points, not from (or to) anywhere. They will be “nodes” or collection or drop-off areas, like “stops”.
Uber air taxis
At the same conference, Uber has revealed what its air taxis will be like. It will be electric drones and they hope that they will be fully deployed in 2023. They will take off and land vertically, reach those 320 km / h and fly at about 300 meters. They will do it between certain roofs of buildings enabled as landing and take-off platforms.
These drones will be able to travel about 100 kilometers with each battery charge. They will be equipped with four engines with propellers for vertical take-off and landing , plus a fifth engine and propeller for propulsion. Uber expects them to be autonomous although at first they will always be piloted by a human.
The American agency began work in 2015 on an air traffic control system. It was about focusing on traffic below 120 meters . This is not controlled by the American Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), nor by other organizations in other countries. That is why the law allows you to fly drones or model aircraft up to that height only (equivalent to 400 feet).
Flying drones for different tasks
NASA began by preventing drones from drifting beyond the pilot's sight. In a second phase, they allowed to move away out of visual range, respecting certain areas (buildings or towns) automatically. This year they are testing technologies that prevent them from approaching each other or crossing paths. And next year, the last phase, will allow them to fly over populated areas. That is now prohibited by the FAA, but it is the necessary step for the distribution to be a future reality . When that works, NASA will pass the system on to the FAA to see how to make it compatible with human pilot controlled flights.
Anyway, there is still a long way to go before an automatic air traffic control allows you to fly drones on a daily basis. There will be sensors on the ground, others on the drones themselves, but when there are many in flight at once the systems could easily become saturated with so much information. It will be years before the FAA approves something like that and it sure won't be as fast as Uber or Amazon would like. Right now there may be between 5 and 6,000 drones flying at the same time in American airspace. This will be multiplied by 100 when these services work.
There are many unknowns, such as which spaces to reserve in inhabited areas for shots in cases of breakdown or emergency. Right now in the United States there are almost ten times more registered drones than airplanes and light aircraft. To give an authorization the FAA can take 90 days, and the first objective of the new system is to serve low altitude and respond in 90 seconds. By the end of the year something like this should be working to cover some 500 airports and airfields.
Amazon, UPS or DHL are not so patient ... but they will not have much choice. For those responsible for the NASA program, there are about 10 years left for Amazon's dream to come true . And hopefully, there are no incidents in the tests and that no drone kills someone or collides with a plane. There may be a specific distribution, or even a specific transfer of passengers from one point to another, but not "traffic" until the system that controls it is secure.