FAA's next traffic control system may not be fit for drones

Much has changed since the Federal Aviation Administration decided to start testing drones in the US for the first time. Part of that is due to the growing interest in UAVs over recent months, not only from hobbyists, but also from major technology companies including Amazon, Facebook and Google. There's certainly potential for a great deal of congestion in the skies in the near future, but the FAA doesn't believe its upcoming NextGen control system is ready to handle all the forecasted traffic from commercial drones -- not yet, at least. "We didn't understand the magnitude to which (drones) would be an oncoming tidal wave, something that must be dealt with, and quickly," FAA Assistant Administrator Ed Bolton told the Associated Press.

When the administration began designing NextGen back in 2003, which is said to have cost upward of $5 billion so far, drones weren't kept in mind, and it could take years for it to have a working and, most importantly, safe system in place that can monitor and control manned and unmanned aircraft alike. As a member of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association puts it, "It's becoming painfully apparent that in order to get (drones) in there, there is going to have to be fair amount of accommodation, at least in the beginning."

That said, things could pan out better for delivery drones, such as Amazon's Prime Air, since the FAA doesn't exactly consider those "real" and expects them to fly at altitudes lower than 400 feet -- NASA's already working with the administration on building a separate control system for these. What the FAA is really worried about are UAVs that can fly above 18,000 feet, particularly because they do so at slower speeds than airliners that typically use those lanes and, since they're not controlled by an onboard pilot, there's cause for concern that the person on the ground perhaps won't have the ability to avoid a possible accident.

[Image credit: Flickr/Asitimes]