When Drones Leap Into U.S. Airspace, Attention Turns To Herding Them

If drones are ever going to fly safely near manned airplanes, these unmanned craft will need to sense and avoid objects and danger. But the FAA's next generation of radar may not be up to the task.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. And now for All Tech Considered.

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BLOCK: Our tech team is homing in on the burgeoning market for drones or unmanned aircraft. There are three reasons behind out focus. First, drones are cheaper than ever. Second, from farmers to realtors, business people want to use them. And third, the FAA is working on new rules to allow that.

Well, here's an example of a possible hazard. The FAA is investigating a close call, a near collision last month near a Florida airport. The pilot of a commuter jet says he encountered a remotely-piloted craft in restricted airspace, some 2,300 feet up. Unmanned aircraft can be small and hard for pilots to see.

NPR's Steve Henn reports on some research aimed at solving that problem.

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STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Weston Swetich and Matthew Braunberger are building a drone at the University of North Dakota's school of engineering.

WESTON SWETICH: Kind of like a helicopter in a sense. It just hovers. So you have control over pitch, roll and yaw.

HENN: They're on a bit of an odd mission. Will Semke is their professor.

WILL SEMKE: To build a quad rotor aircraft - that in an indoor testing facility to heard a bunch of robots - they're the iRobots.

HENN: What Weston and Matthew are trying to do is build a flying drone that will herd those little iRobots, you know the vacuum cleaners, around a room like sheep - but the trick is the drone has to do this all automatically with no human intervention.

SEMKE: And what we had to do was take an aircraft and autonomously have it look at what the robots are doing and decide what action should be taken - should they get in front of them so they turn around, should they tap them on the top so they change direction, and herd these things into a desired target area.

HENN: Their little quad copter has four rotor blades and is about three feet across. It looks like t a bigger version of the kind of unmanned craft you may have seen in a hobby shop. And their drone needs to identify and track the iRobots visually - using basic cameras - they same way a private pilot would track other planes in the air.

Will Semke says this challenge is pretty similar to the one unmanned aircraft will face when flying through crowed airspace.

SEMKE: Well the similarity is you have information and you have to have a computer system evaluate that information, predict what is going to happen in the future and then act in the most responsible way.

HENN: But when you are herding real airplanes instead of iRobots, the stakes are much higher.

The FAA began testing how to integrate commercial drones into U.S. airspace last week. Bob Becklund runs the Northern Plains Unmanned Aerial Systems Test Site. One of six facilities around the county selected to test the use of unmanned aircraft.

BOB BECKLUND: And the FAA's next generation system relies on digital technology for air craft positional awareness.

HENN: Researchers like Will Semke and other have already used these digital beacons to test how automated drones would behave in crowded airspace. The system is called ADS-B.

SEMKE: And what that basically does is, on an aircraft, it's spitting out its locations, GPS locations, and its heading and all that stuff. And so we know where everything is.

HENN: But this only works if every aircraft in the sky is equipped to send and receive these signals. And right now small private planes are not.

ADS-B has also been hacked. Its signals are unencrypted. So Will Semke believes the FAA's next-generation system is only part of the answer.

SEMKE: One of the problems is geese don't want to wear ADS-B systems and they're not going to.

(LAUGHTER)

HENN: Still, Will Semke is optimist. He says the kind of research his students are doing, teaching drones to see, will eventually help drones fly safely almost to anywhere. But he believes getting there may take years.

Steve Henn, NPR News

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