Drones are becoming a common sight in the skies and leaving a growing trail of disasters behind them. Whether they're dropping bombs, shutting down airports, sparking brawls at football matches, or colliding with planes, drones can cause enormous damage that could scupper ambitious ideas for new commercial applications.
Amazon has already completed autonomous "Prime Air" deliveries and Uber aims to launch a flying taxi service by 2023, but their plans will be stalled until safety records improve.
A British startup called Altitude Angels has developed a solution that could reduce the risk the Conflict Resolution System (CRS), an automatic collision avoidance technology for drones.
The first component of the CRS is 'strategic mode', which organises the route planning before an aircraft takes off and suggests alterations to the route and take-off time to reduce the risk of a run-in with other scheduled flights.
Once the drone's in the sky, the CRS switches to 'tactical' mode. This scans the surroundings for other unmanned aircraft, commercial airliners and private planes fitted with transponders, as well as changes to the airspace, such as temporary flight restrictions and police incidents.
If the CRS identifies any risk of collision, it will make mid-flight routing adjustments that ensure a safe distance is maintained from other airspace users or divert the drone around any restricted airspace. This avoidance guidance is either sent to the human pilot or as a direct instruction to the autopilot system. If the human pilot doesn't respond to the suggestion within a set timeframe, the system will execute the action on their behalf, under the assumption that the pilot is somehow incapacitated.
Aviation regulations are fairly standardised around the world, which allows the CRS to connect information between different companies and countries.
"It does this in compliance with local laws and regulations, and it's designed really to start laying the fabric for that autonomous future of navigation," Altitude Angel CEO Richard Parker tells Techworld.
The system is designed for planes that are following the law, but it could also help air traffic controllers to identify the rogue fliers, such as the drone that shut down Gatwick Airport for two nights last December.
"If you are a drone radar, then everything potentially looks like a target," explains Parker. "CRS would be the most important and valuable tool available to a drone detection system to be able to work out which of those actually require a security response."
Building the system
The CRS is powered by Altitude Angel's GuardianUTM (Unmanned Traffic Management) operating system, an airspace management platform for drones that offers detailed aeronautical, environmental, regulatory and drone-centric operation data.
Drone manufacturers, software developers and fleet operators can connect their aircraft to the system through APIs, and use the CRS to share their flight plan data, or keep it private if they only want to monitor conflicts with their own drones and customers.
"The best thing to picture is a massively scalable flying IoT platform," says Parker.
The CRS integrates with other tools provided by Altitude Angels, including interactive airspace map Drone Assist, autonomous vehicle configuration system Mission Planner, and drone safety data app Guardian, as well as the flight data shared by the existing users of these products.
The strategic mode is already available. Altitude Angels wants this to gain widespread adoption to build up an extensive log of flight paths and pilots before releasing the tactical mode that will act on this data.
"Then automatic drones can receive flight-plan modifications, truly remote piloted by Altitude Angel, and that's a huge step," says Parker. "That's never been done anywhere before."