How NASA Plans to Build a Highway in the Sky


After Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, appeared on 60 Minutes and announced his plans to introduce an Amazon Prime Air drone delivery system, a number of skeptics surfaced and questioned whether Bezos was completely serious with this new endeavour. Bezos later affirmed his complete sincerity and seriousness in his desire to have helicopter drones deliver products bought on Amazon to prime customers on the same day as the orders. Observers questioned whether he could practically implement the technology without having the drones crash into buildings, birds or people. His response was to cooperate with NASA to begin plans for a highway in the sky, this is how.

Dr. Parimal Kopardekar, rocket scientist for NASA and recipient of the Ames Honor Award for Engineer of the Year in 2003, has worked on numerous Air Transportation and Air Space technologies for NASA, and he is currently the principal investigator in the space agency’s NextGen Airspace Project. One of his current projects is the UTM (Unmanned Aerial Traffic Management System), more commonly known as the “highway in the sky.”

As ambitious as the project has been perceived, Kopardekar stated that they are not starting development on the project from scratch. He says that the UTM construct is utilizing very similar aircraft technology as used in their previous work with upper airspace and commercial carriers. He stated that they do need to make adjustments to the trajectory prediction and definition because the air drones will fly at a much lower level of altitude. The accomplished engineer says there is over 20 years of research going into the development of UTM.

NASA’s plan to build a highway in the sky signifies the first major endeavour in Class G airspace (below 1,200 feet). Given that human beings live and work in that altitude, routing considerations are extremely necessary. Kopardekar addressed the safety concerns in his work, and noted how he intends on making the operation completely safe. According to trained rocket engineer, a system is needed in order to accommodate low flying space operations. Currently there is no system, which is why he believes skeptics are concerned over the drone proposal. He suggests they are imagining drones being released randomly in different directions, causing chaos.

His team is currently working on developing a roadway inspired system in which the drones will have their versions of stop signs, turn signals and stop lights. They are also working on enabling  geo-fenced areas to pilot the aircraft. While the aircraft is in the area, the drone will be monitored and flights can be programmed depending on GPS locations.

How will the drones themselves operate after NASA’s plans to build a highway in the sky come to fruition? The aircraft will be highly advanced according to the engineers of the product. The drones will be able to interpret spatial information and detect the location of everything in their geo-fenced areas. Each drone or Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS)  will then program the exact flight pattern needed to avoid the obstacle, even if hit by a gust of wind. Neither Amazon nor NASA have disclosed any date for when their technology will be introduced.

By Andres Loubriel