Commercial drone aircraft, such as those envisioned for direct delivery and other applications, are an up-and-coming thing. They’re a hot topic right now in tech and political circles, but face a lot of obstacles to becoming reality.
To start with, if the drones are to be useful on a wide scale, they’ll need to be mostly autonomous so that an individual pilot for each drone is not a requirement. Next, legal hurdles will have to be lept. Then public acceptance must be had.
The last two problems are currently not big issues since the first problem has yet to be totally overcome. To that end, NASA is working on drone guidance software that allows the aircraft to “think” its way around obstacles that cannot be flown over (due to altitude restrictions) or easily flown around (such as groups of buildings, an orchard, etc).
Most drones fly in the 400-500-foot zone of altitude – not very high by aircraft standards. This low altitude means a lot of obstacles and could, eventually, mean a lot of other drones get in the way of a straight A-B flight path.
NASA is working on a sort of air traffic control system just for drones flying at these low altitudes, to ensure that they are not only tracked and monitored, but also helped through difficult situations that could tax the internal capabilities of the aircraft.
Obstacles like towers, low-flying news helicopters, other drones, large birds, and other things are all operating in that airspace. NASA wants to develop the infrastructure to support all of these aircraft within that zone. The space agency envisions most of this monitoring and control happening via computers rather than people.
The research is taking place at NASA’s Moffett Field, just a few miles from Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California.