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June 11, 2015

NASA Tests Drone Tracking System with Verizon Cell Network

Drones are an intriguing technology for business and government alike, with companies such as Amazon and Google investing millions of dollars to test their drone technologies and figure out how to put them to good use.

There’s still the question of public safety, however, and a recent deal between NASA and Verizon might show the way to make drones more trackable and therein safer.

The problem is that drones often fly too low for traditional air traffic control to track them, making it currently a wild west in the skies. This obviously is a problem for safety and control.

NASA has a plan, however, and it involves Verizon cellular towers.

While the radar that is used to track regular aircraft won’t work with drones, cellular towers are tall enough and sophisticated enough to track such unmanned aerial flight.

NASA reportedly has inked a $500,000 agreement with Verizon, therefore, to use its cellular tower network for a new drone air traffic control system called Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM). Verizon has the largest cellular tower network, making it the obvious choice for NASA.

The air traffic control system will be tested in California at the Ames Research Center this summer. If it is a success, NASA will run a pilot program starting in 2017, according to The Guardian, and expand the system into its final form by 2019.

There still are questions to be answered regarding the system, however.

Does this mean that all drones will be required to have cellular antennas built into them so they can be tracked? Will there be defined routes, or still a relative amount of freedom? How will this interact with traditional air traffic control systems, since it would be pretty annoying to have an Amazon drone run over by a Delta flight to Phoenix, for instance?

There are other questions, too; it is still early days. What is known is that the NASA system would radically change the free-for-all currently in play right now regarding drone flight. This tracking and control would probably push drone technology further into the mainstream, but of course there would be growing pains and initial objections as manufacturers and society got the mix right.

The NASA development therefore is a big deal. And, it is a good opportunity for Verizon.

Edited by Peter Bernstein

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