The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that by 2020 there could be more than 700,000 commercial drones flying millions of times a year in low-altitude airspace to deliver packages, monitor traffic, track storms, inspect power lines, aid search and rescue operations, and more.
This expected deluge will require a sophisticated air traffic management system for unmanned aircraft—one that will prevent accidents and airborne congestion, and work efficiently to serve public and commercial interests. At the forefront of this endeavor is Parimal Kopardekar, who with his team of engineers and scientists at NASA, has designed a first-of-its-kind system to safely manage multiple unmanned aerial vehicles flying in the same area at the same time.
Kopardekar, who goes by “PK,” had the vision and leadership skills to galvanize the public and private sectors to devise an entirely new air traffic management approach. From a $5,000 workshop, he created a program with an $18 million annual budget, and has set the stage for an entire new era in unmanned aviation and the potential to unleash a multibillion dollar U.S. industry.
“PK is the principal architect, researcher and engineer of the unmanned traffic management system,” said Sean Cassidy, director of safety and regulatory affairs at Amazon, one of the private-sector partners collaborating with NASA. “He has acted as a catalyst for government and industry, and has brought people together. He’s trying to introduce a level of coherence and order at the start so it’s done right.”
Jonathan Evans, president of the drone operations company Skyward, compared the new system to an old futuristic cartoon come to life. “We’re talking about nothing short of building the infrastructure of ‘The Jetsons.’ It’s an audacious federal program. It’s got science, tech and next-gen to it. PK is a deft connector.”
As a graduate student, Kopardekar became interested in aviation and went to work first for the FAA and then NASA. He started developing a system for managing drones in 2012 and held a conference on drone traffic management issues in 2014. By 2015, a convention on the topic drew nearly 1,500 people and the FAA took notice.
“Not in my wildest dreams did I think it would grow this much, this fast,” said Kopardekar, a senior NASA technologist for air transportation systems. He attributes much of the credit to his NASA team and other federal and industry partners.
Kopardekar’s management system goes well beyond the hobbyist playing with a drone in a park. It covers unmanned aircraft flying out of sight and up to 500 feet in the air. The open-source system uses software, the internet and cell service, instead of air traffic controllers, to keep the aircraft spaced apart. It allows the drones with onboard sensors and connectivity to share information on where they are going, and it helps them optimize their trajectories based on what else is in the space.
“The traffic management system provides a common picture to the operators about which airspace is available, which airspace is occupied by others and how best they can optimize their operations,” said Cheryl Quinn, associate director of aeronautics at NASA.
“The small drones are coming,” Kopardekar said. “If they are not supported and you send millions of drones into the sky, it will be unmanageable. This is a chance to study and put together an entirely new system that will have tremendous impact on society. The current way can’t accommodate large-scale operations. We have to change the paradigm.”
Kopardekar nearly singlehandedly convinced the FAA and private-sector companies to focus on the traffic management system and the need for safety for unmanned aerial systems, according to Steve Bradford, chief scientist at FAA. The NASA team has worked with 200 industry partners such as Amazon, Google, AT&T, Verizon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Cisco, Skyward and GE, as well as with the FAA, the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, and foreign governments.
In contrast to having air traffic controllers manage flight takeoffs and landings as in commercial aviation, the proposed system allows individual operators to manage air traffic using a common set of rules, and computer software to ensure proper spacing and avoid collisions. The management system, in effect, defines the roles and responsibilities for all of the participants.
This system has been tested in open areas, and for agriculture monitoring, firefighting assistance and infrastructure inspections. The next research phase will involve flying drones in airspace with more traffic and over populated areas, and will have a stronger focus on responding to the presence of larger, piloted aircraft.
If this testing is successful, the government will have to make infrastructure investments and overcome a number of engineering and policy hurdles for Kopardekar’s approach to be put into full operation safely.
“PK’s reputation and the role he holds in this global community is eye-watering to me,” said John Cavolowsky, director of NASA’s Transformative Aeronautics Concepts Program. “The progress he’s made in a short amount of time is incredible.”