NASA, Amazon Look To France For Drone Air-Traffic Control System

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Both organisations to utilise French drone expertise and less onerous laws to develop drone control systems

France is reportedly being targetted by both NASA and Amazon to help in the development of a drone air-traffic control system.

The country has key experts needed for this development, and it is helped by the fact that France has less stringent laws governing the use of unmanned vehicles.

It comes after it was reported in 2014 that NASA was developing an air-traffic control system specifically for drones.

France technology © Shutterstock

French expertise

That NASA air-traffic control system for drone was apparently being developed at NASA’s Moffett Field, near Google’s Mountain View, California headquarters.

That system was supposed to be designed specifically for devices flying around 500 feet to the ground or less, and it would monitor weather and air traffic conditions, keeping track of wind patterns that could affect lightweight drones.

The system would also ensure drones keep clear of buildings, helicopters and other objects, also enforcing no-fly zones around areas such as major airports.

And now according to Bloomberg, NASA is looking to tap into drone expertise in France, to help it figure out how to coordinate drone traffic.

NASA has reportedly approached drone designer Delair-Tech, located near plane-maker the home of Airbus in Toulouse. It wants Delair-Tech to test prototypes for air traffic management software, a key development if government’s around the world are going to permit unmanned vehicles to fly out of sight from their operators, for example when delivering goods.

“Coordinating traffic between drones, as well as with planes, it’s the end-goal that’s mobilizing a lot of people across the industry,” said entrepreneur Michael de Lagarde, CEO of Delair-Tech told Bloomberg. “Today, we’re collectively at level zero of traffic management, we just segment the air space.”

Ever since 2014, NASA has been leading industry efforts to create a drone air-traffic-control system. It has signed up companies such as Alphabet’s Google and Amazon for example.

France has a pool of drone expertise thanks to the fact that it was one of the first countries to regulate commercial drone use in 2012.

This in turn drove growth of local startups and the development of local expertise.

The US for example only finalised its rules for unmanned aircraft in June 2016 when the US Federal Aviation Administration said it would hand out drone authorisation on a case by case basis. In France, the rules are more permissive, including out-of-sight flights.

Meanwhile it is reported that Amazon has hired a team of engineers with expertise in aviation as well as machine-learning and artificial intelligence in a Paris suburb.

Indeed, Amazon has reportedly also set up a lab near Paris as part of a separate effort to develop its own air-traffic-control system to manage its fleet of drones flying from warehouses to customers’ doors.

Drone headaches

The arrival and uptake of drone technology has led to some headaches for authorities, concerned at risks to the public and commercial aviation.

This has led to the development of some unorthodox approaches.

Dutch police for example are training eagles to take out airborne vehicles that could pose a threat to public safety.

eagle drones

Meanwhile the Japanese police have created a dedicated drone squad. That drone squad is equipped with a specialised drone that uses a net to disable the target drone.

The US government meanwhile is known to be working on technologies for protecting the public and sensitive areas from rogue drones, although little is known about its takedown methods.

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