Don't let these images fool you. What they're displaying are drones flying in six states across the U.S. Researchers at NASA Ames are trying to create a low-altitude version of the high-altitude air traffic control system that tracks 50,000 commercial jets a day.
This the first time they've tested 24 drones flying at the same time, as far away as Alaska, Texas, Virginia, and New York.
The cloud-based system uses algorithms to know where drones are operating and to send an alert when they stray from their flight path. It's called management by exception.
"We want it to be fast and we want basically to only know when the problems could arise, rather than watching the regular things," said Parimal Kopardekar, Ph.D., with the Safe Autonomous System Operations Project.
It's projected there could be 2.2 million drones flying at low altitudes by 2020 for delivering packages, or even inspecting bridges and power lines.
They will need to co-exist, along with drones operated by hobbyists.
"We're still at the stage of defining how soon you would have to alert somebody, when would you have to alert somebody," said NASA Research Aerospace Engineer Joseph Rios, Ph.D. "These are the kinds of questions that we're asking right now and as we develop these ideas, this platform allows us to test some of those out."
NASA has been asked by the FAA to come up with a workable system by 2019.
"One monolithic system's probably not the answer," Rios said. "But again, that's one of the things we're researching. What's the right architecture? How many of these systems have to operate to manage all the little different regional air spaces that we expect to be active at any given time."
A team of 20 at NASA Ames thinks it made a big step forward on Tuesday.
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