FAA's New $5 Billion Air Traffic Control System Forgot About Drones

Illustration for article titled FAA's New $5 Billion Air Traffic Control System Forgot About Drones

Designers of the Federal Aviation Administration's futuristic, new air traffic control system did a whoops. Despite explicit instructions from Congress to take drones into account, they failed to include them in the plans for the $5 billion NextGen system. And it's definitely too late to start over.

This isn't good. It's become increasingly clear in recent years that drones aren't just going to become a presence in America's skies; they're going to become a fixture. The FAA itself just gave Hollywood permission to use drones for filming TV shows and movies, and there's a long line of other folks, like Amazon and Google, that can hardly wait for commercial drones to go mainstream. And that's not even taking the hobbyists or the military into account.


Of course, it's tempting to cut the FAA's airspace designers a break, since Congress ordered the new system way back in 2003. "We didn't understand the magnitude to which (drones) would be an oncoming tidal wave, something that must be dealt with, and quickly," said Ed Bolton, the agency's assistant administrator for NextGen. But—and this is a big "but"—Congress specifically ordered the FAA to take drones into account.

Now, the hardware and software has been installed for several key systems, but there's no support for drone traffic. The NextGen roadmap for the next five years also does not include plans for managing that traffic, and experts fear the FAA already too far along in the process to make such a radical shift. While the fact that most drones fly below 400-feet at present, they will fly as high as commercial airlines in the not too distant future. Airspace design is already complicated enough without throwing a bunch of pilotless—or at least remotely piloted—aircraft into the mix.

But heck, what did we expect? The FAA's had a hard enough time figuring out simply how to regulate drones in America's air space. It's no huge surprise to learn that they're not exactly forward-thinking about how everything will work once those (still mysterious) regulations kick in. [AP]

Image via Getty


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I sort of worked on NASA/FAA's NextGen project as a grad student using their airspace evaluation tool. The project started a long time ago, before drones & quadcopters became ubiquitous. Therefore, the headline is a bit wrong since no one "forgot" about drones, it was never an issue to begin with. Needless to say, they weren't part of the equation (quite literally)!

Most of the components in the system, if not all, can be easily controlled & regulated since there are specific agencies and entities responsible for running the show. With drones, it's not the case — military drones, delivery drones, average-joe drones etc and I think that's why FAA is having such a hard time and that's why it can't be easily integrated into future airspace plans. There's always a curveball in long-term plans and in this case, drones are a major curveball.

Initially, NextGen was conceived as a plan to ease congestion — to help reduce operating costs for airlines and reduce delays (by 2016). To that end, drones don't really matter. However, safety is paramount in aerospace applications and that's where, I feel, drones come (rather fly) in. As an example, automated systems in NextGen currently suggest new routing and even pick runways for landing based on traffic density (more important with Metroplexes). These systems have to reprogrammed to route drones around low-flying aircraft or vice-versa. It's a mammoth overhaul!! IIRC, NextGen was supposed to take North American airspace into the next generation (duh!) till 2025 when modeling suggested the dramatic changes in the behaviour of individual systems would warrant a new solution.