A Drone Air-Traffic System Should Manage the Lower Sky. Here’s How

Interface concept for an autonomous agriculture-drone-system

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) such as drones will soon change our urban and rural landscape and the way we live together. They could help us fight diseases more efficiently with flying mosquito traps, deliver goods faster from drone airports to any remote part of the world, improve search and rescue missions after an earthquake, providing web access from above, and will help to feed our growing population of 9.7 billion people by 2050 (more of that later).

But there is one big question which arises in that context: How do we manage and control this growing air traffic in the lower sky?

NASA is working on a low-altitude airspace management

There is no clear airspace system to control the lower sky, yet

Dynamic geo-fencing (see below) and collision avoidance is one of the first necessary steps to avoid collisions with buildings, larger aircrafts, helicopters, gliders, balloons and parachutists. For that an alert system could track UAVs in real-time to report flight paths and alert them of unanticipated hazards such as severe weather and wind or congestion.

An interesting approach is to implement a system of roads, corridors, lanes, rules and if necessary stop signs and lights that govern UAVs such as researchers at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore proposed. This airspace system could have autonomous characteristics that include self-configuration, self-optimization and even self-protection.

But even if the current groundbreaking innovations in fields such as artificial intelligence and machine learning will soon enable this autonomous systems, humans will want to have a visual representation of the UAV’s activities and might have to intervene in processes.

Proposal for an aerial traffic management system by NTU Singapore

Research by FAA and NASA is slow

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predict the number of drones will increase to 7 million by 2020 in the United States. Therefore, they are working together with NASA to research the possible implementations of an “Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management”. Although results of that research in form of recommendations for a national solution won’t be published before 2019.

The FAA forecast that the top three UAS markets will be industrial inspection (42%), real estate/aerial photography (22%) and agriculture (19%) in the next 20 years. Combined with the fact that we expect 9.6 billion people by 2050 and experts expect agricultural consumption to increase by nearly 70 percent over the same time period, I think it is quite interesting to explore the field of an autonomous agriculture-drone-system further. Farming is an input-output system and data gathered by UAVs could help to reduce the inputs — water and pesticides–and optimize the outputs.

“We can be more efficient about where we grow, what we grow, and how we grow.” –Foley for National Geographic

An Unmanned Aircraft System for Farming

With all that in mind, I asked myself how an interface for an UAV control center might look like. So I decided to challanged myself with a quick design exercise and ran a side project over a week. 
The concept is based on an exemplary control center which administrates all Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in the area of Salinas, California between San Francisco and Los Angeles — known for its vibrant and large agriculture industry. One huge wall projection provides a macro view of the area and people in front of several terminals work on specific tasks.

Workstation in sci-fi movie Ender’s Game (above) and Equals

The generic wall projection could display all necessary data such as the weather, UAV status, location on a map, etc. similar to current air-traffic-control stations. People in front of their own terminals would work in different divisions such as Farming, Constructing, Protecting, etc.

Interface for sci-fi movie Oblivion [Gmunk]

This workstations could look like the terminals in Drake Doremus’s sci-fi movie Equals or Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion (see picture and video above).

Bringing big data to precision agriculture

UAVs could enhance the data-driven agriculture with fleets or swarms of autonomous drones for monitoring tasks but also for active work such as crop spraying or planting with pods of seeds and plant nutrients in form of hybrid aerial-ground drones.

The delivered real-time data could visualize patterns exposing irrigation problems to soil variation or pest, bacterial and fungal infections. Besides precise satellite pictures, airborne cameras could provide hyperspectral, multispectral and thermal images to analyze healthy/distressed plants, chlorophyll- and nitrogen-levels and more. In the proposed interface (see above) are most of these analytical possibilities included considering that this is just a theoretical concept.

Either way, I’m looking forward to the conversation about a first generation of an air traffic control system for drones and seeing more proposals such as the results of the research project by the Nanyang Technological University for Singapore.

P.S. You can find all of the images on Dropbox here 👉https://www.dropbox.com/sh/baw31764ndlomr0/AAD7c_axcZZkpdMUDuGHhb3ma?dl=0

Hi, I’m Sebastian running the DataDesign Studio in Berlin. I’ve co-founded a company providing big data analytics in professional football and working as a freelance data visualisation designer for clients such as United Nations, Volkswagen or Siemens. 
Get in touch via email.