The UK government is working with NASA to build a tracking system for civilian drones.
A potential system could involve commercial drone pilots having to enter their details into an online database that holds information about their flights below 500ft.
Lord Ahmad Tariq, the Under Secretary of State for Transport, confirmed in the House of Lords that the government was having discussions with the American space agency and wanted to help trial any systems that are produced.
“The Government are in early discussions with NASA about the drone traffic management system,” he said.
“It is hoped that those discussions will lead to a UK involvement in the development of that system and the participation of UK industry in future trials to test the robustness of the technology.”
NASA is already working with the US government and companies like Google, Amazon and telecoms company Verizon on developing a database which will allow drone pilots to reserve blocks of airspace for flights. There is nothing yet in place at the EU level.
The collaboration comes as a result of widespread anxiety about the possibility of a mid-air collision between small drones and commercial aircraft.
A new Forrester report vividly described the potential fallout.
“Imagine thousands of drones operated by hundreds of businesses delivering products or capturing data in dense urban areas like New York City, Chicago, or San Francisco,” the research says.
“Without a common set of technology protocols and rules of the air, chaos could reign.”
According to Detta O’Cathain, a Baroness in the House of Lords, the concern has escalated in the wake of reports of near misses, and the operation of drones over football stadiums and close to nuclear power stations, and the Eiffel Tower.
“More than 400 calls made to the [Metropolitan] police were regarding incidents involving drones over the last two years,” O’Cathain said.
The big idea: to build a system to track and trace all drones, especially those flying below 500 feet, irrespective of whether they were flown by commercial or leisure pilots.
“As more small drones are flown commercially at low altitude beyond the sight of the pilot, or even flown completely autonomously, some sort of air traffic management infrastructure to separate flights will be required to ensure the safety of complex operations, for example, package delivery in cities,” she said.
According to Nasa, this drone traffic management system will incorporate services such as airspace design, severe weather and wind avoidance, congestion management, route planning and re-routing – similar to the rules in place for road traffic, such as signals and lanes.
They expect to have a working prototype by 2019.
The drone industry is set to explode in the European Union over the coming years.
“We are already seeing small, innovative UK SME companies using this technology to great effect in the energy sector, agriculture and media industries,” Lord Tariq said.
More than 670 permissions for commercial drone operations in the UK alone were granted by the Civil Aviation Authority in 2014. The European Commission estimated that the drone industry could generate 150,000 jobs in the EU by 2050.