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These days, drones are causing a lot of, if not problems, certainly headlines. They are popping up near secure areas, over flight paths, and outside the windows of pretty ladies. The obvious solution to the problem of ballooning use of drones is the same as the historical solution to the problem of ballooning use of airplanes: track and direct their movements. The problem is that drones are much smaller and quicker than planes, and fly too low and in areas that are too dense for radar. Now, NASA has recruited some of the biggest names in industry to help solve that problem with a source of data that’s already ubiquitous in large cities: cell phone coverage.
This latest report is based on documents released to The Guardian through a Freedom of Information request, and reveal deep industry ties to the project. Verizon’s near-ubiquitous cell network will be the sole host for early tests, though all carriers would be required to adopt any system the FAA did decide to endorse. Amazon and Google are also on board to help government develop their Unmanned aerial systems Traffic Management (UTM) system, which could make commercial drone services more likely while making unfettered personal use more difficult.
The system would not only track drones with cell towers, but use those towers to provide drones with data about their environment and the placement of other flyers. This would allow them to not only watch, but control the behavior of drones; NASA wants the system to be able to “geo-fence” areas like airports and political centers so drones simply cannot go there. They could decide which drones should take precedence in congested areas, or force drones to land during bad weather. Though it isn’t mentioned in the documents, this would likely also allow authorities to ground participating drones they believe to be involved in illegal activity.
That’s the pitch: Lose some freedom of action to effective regulation, and in return your drones won’t crash into buildings, people, or each other. Libertarian drone enthusiasts might not like the look of that deal, but that’s not true for companies like Google and Amazon, which have each invested heavily in Project Wing and PrimeAir, respectively. As Google has found with self-driving cars, regulatory barriers can undo the world’s best business plan. The FAA’s regulations for commercial drones are not yet finalized, but NASA does note that the UTM system will be designed specifically to allow a safe roll-out of Amazon’s service (along with that of “other operators”).
This scheme likely would not immediately stop some illegal drone uses, like flying drugs over international borders, since those drones would undoubtedly be stripped of whatever tracking hardware had come with them. This would essentially lobotomize the drone, relative to one with active tracking tech, and leave it without the awareness provided by the (inter)national cloud of drones. That might be fine if you only need to fly the drone straight across a featureless patch of desert, but less so in a city. To make sure the average user didn’t just detach the tracker whenever convenient, most drones would likely be sold with a hard dependency on a cell phone connection for navigation — but that’s just speculation at this point.
Some sort of centralized authority will be necessary to keep commercial drone services in the air, whether that centrality is facilitated by cell phone towers, WiFi routers, or anything else. Companies like Amazon aren’t helping drone control efforts out of the goodness of their heart. Once we have the ability to safely deploy large numbers of drones in dense urban areas, that’s when we’ll see the layoffs truly begin.
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