Wed, May 09, 2018 - Page 7 News List

NASA, Amazon in France to coordinate drone traffic


NASA and Inc are tapping experts in France to figure out how to coordinate drone traffic, bolstering the nation’s role as a hub for evolving regulation of uncrewed aircraft.

While Amazon hired a team in a Paris suburb, NASA headed closer to plane-maker Airbus SE’s home in Toulouse, calling on drone designer Delair-Tech to test prototypes for air traffic management software.

It is a key part of convincing regulators that uncrewed vehicles are safe to fly higher and further out of sight from their operators, such as while 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,” Delair-Tech chief executive officer Michael de Lagarde said. “Today, we’re collectively at level zero of traffic management. We just segment the air space.”

NASA has been leading efforts to create a drone air traffic control system, with companies, including Alphabet Inc’s Google and Amazon, signing agreements with the space agency.

France was one of the first nations to regulate commercial drone use in 2012, spurring the growth of local start-ups and spawning expertise that NASA is now tapping.

The US Federal Aviation Administration finalized rules for uncrewed aircraft in mid-2016. While the US relies a lot on case-by-case authorizations, French rules are more permissive, including on things like out-of-sight flights.

The US is not yet at a point where companies can run routine operations with drones — delivery, for instance, is only possible on an exceptional basis, said Phil Finnegan, an analyst at aerospace and defense researcher Teal Group.

That is holding back growth of new services, he said.

“There’s still work to convince governments of the safe operation of drones, including above people’s heads,” Finnegan said. “For a company like Amazon that wants to use a lot of drones, traffic management becomes a big question and a critical one in terms of safety.”

Delair-Tech, which makes image-gathering drones that fly long distances, built and tested prototypes with NASA. Being able to show that drones could report their position, spot other objects and avoid crashing into them were among the company’s goals, De Lagarde said.

For Delair-Tech, upgrading regulations means potentially selling to a broader customer base, as the start-up looks to expand its software offering as part of a collaboration with Intel Corp and eyes raising money from investors by summer to finance that push.

The company’s last round two years ago was for 13 million euros (US$15.5 million) from funds, including one backed by a large cognac-producing family in France.

Amazon has 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.

The company hired engineers with expertise in aviation as well as machine learning and artificial intelligence — talent Amazon said it could find more easily in France.

The management system the company is working on would integrate detailed maps, including temporary objects such as construction cranes, weather conditions and birds, Amazon vice president for global innovation policy and communications Paul Misener said last year.

Challenges such as development costs, how to define global standards and deciding who is ultimately responsible for safety and regulation are all pending.

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