Getting ready for drones invasion

Invisible roads up in the air are being planned for safe drones operation. Credit: Nanyang University, Singapore

Drones sales are now counted in millions. In 2016 over one million drones were sold in the US (that is twice the number of 2015) and more are expected to be sold in 2017, as new models are appearing.

At Nanyang University in Singapore a 4 year project in underway to address the problem of safe drone operation in a urban environment.

The project aims at creating a sort of automated air space navigation control for unmanned vehicles by designing invisible roads in the sky and coordinating drones flight. Given their number it will be impossible (and costly) to replicate the flight management systems of aircraft with a person to person communication (pilot to air traffic controller). Besides, as commercial use grows, more and more drones will be flying under an automatic, computer controlled, flight plan.

The project is expected to finalise its strategy by the end of 2017 and start experimentation in 2018.

The basic ideas researchers are working on is to replicate the traffic flow in a city, with roads, blocks and red lights at interception. Differently from an airplane, a drone can hoover, so it is acceptable to ask it to hold a position, like a car at a red light. Nevertheless this is not an efficient way for traffic management so the goal is to keep all drones moving smoothly to their destination in the shortest time over the shortest route.

Some air space areas are "no-go" and researchers are thinking about geo-fencing for building invisible walls to delimit them. They are also trying to leverage the intelligence of each drone and their collision detection and avoidance capabilities.

Overall it is a matter of organising a swarm made up by autonomous systems with different degrees of intelligence and capabilities. As the number grows the challenges multiply. It is indeed a very interesting problem particularly if you want to address it through a loose management approach (like the one followed by flocks of birds and swarms of bees...). 

5G is also being considered by some as a potential communication fabric and as a provider of beacons defining the topology of space. Here again we have some interesting challenges ahead, from a technology point of view. These will be one of the underpinning for regulatory approaches that will be required and set in place by decade end.

EIT Digital has started to address some of these issues in its Digital Infrastructure area.

IEEE FDC 5G initiative is also looking at some of these aspects.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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