Aveopt jumps in new field of drone air traffic control

Growing markets like agriculture, transportation, security, mining and other industries are pushing more drones into the sky.

A technology company with northern Michigan roots is growing its business through drones and the air traffic control snarl expected to come with them.

Aveopt, a Traverse City-based company co-founded in 2016 by Glen Lake native Tim Nash, has combined drone technology with geographical information systems (GIS), virtual reality, and augmented reality for use across a range of infrastructure markets, like utilities, transportation, and oil and gas.

But an evolving regulatory push by the Federal Aviation Administration has revealed a new market for Aveopt: drone air traffic control.

Aveopt CEO Art Kahn says that the population of drones has “just gone absolutely crazy.”

“It’s estimated that by 2020 or 2021, you’re going to have somewhere between three-quarters of a million and a million active drones, delivering commercial industry types of services,” he said.

According to Kahn, the nature of the commercial utilization of these drones means that the majority of them are operating at 400 feet or below. The result is a rapidly growing cloud of near-ground aerial traffic – something that has prompted the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to investigate how to safely integrate drone flights within the nation’s airspace system through a pilot project expected to last through September 2019.

According to faa.gov, the “Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management System Pilot Project will be distinct, but complementary to, the traditional FAA’s air traffic management system … [it] is intended to develop and demonstrate a traffic management system to safely integrate drone flights within the nation’s airspace system. Also, the pilot project will create a shared information network and gather data that can be used for future rulemakings.”

Currently, Kahn says the FAA is looking for a means of mapping and managing the traffic of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). For the most part, those potential solutions have focused on radar, because of its role in air traffic control for airplanes and other aircraft.

However, Kahn says there are limitations to radar that would make it especially difficult to leverage for drone technology, given the low flight paths of most UAVs.

“Radar is great for looking vertically, but if you want to look down range 10 miles at a 400-foot elevation or below, you wind up having certain challenges or problems,” Kahn said. “It becomes a line-of-sight issue. If you have a tree in the way, you’ve got a problem.”

Aveopt is currently working on a solution that might solve not only the challenges of vertically monitoring, mapping, and managing drone traffic, but also the pitfalls of doing so horizontally.

“What we realized was that there was going to have to be a more comprehensive type of solution,” Kahn said. “And based on the work that we’ve been doing on the wireless side of things, and the context that we have in that arena, we decided to pursue that aggressively.”

Though Aveopt declined to reveal all the details of its solution for UAV management, Kahn says the system will “take into account the deficiencies in the infrastructure as it currently exists,” ultimately allowing for “more optimal tracking of drones during flight.” The company has been in talks with both the State of Michigan and the FAA, and Kahn says they have received positive feedback and significant interest.

Kahn acknowledges that working with government authorities to craft a new system for drone traffic management is a departure for Aveopt. However, he notes that the successful implementation of such a system would ultimately be a positive thing for every company currently operating in the drone services industry – Aveopt included.

“In order to make our products and services more effective, and to attain adoption on a much broader and deeper level, we have to be able to go beyond visual line-of-sight drone flights,” Kahn said. “If you have a power line where you’re looking at miles of line, or railway systems where you’re looking at miles of track, that goes beyond visual line-of-sight. And the thing that is going to enable beyond-visual-line-of-sight flights is what the FAA has termed ‘unmanned traffic management,’ leading to autonomous flight. All of the work Aveopt has done up to this point is for products that will be able to be utilized and taken advantage of more once beyond-visual-line-of-sight technology has been adopted and is in play.”

Another possible market for Aveopt would be for telecommunications. Using Aveopt’s trademarked TerraPosition Pro technology with drones, telecom companies would be able to collect data relevant to a potential cell tower site, augment it with AR and VR, and then use geospatial technology to assess the site.

According to its website, TerraPosition Pro “will significantly drive cost reduction (direct and indirect), increase the bottom line, and provide a competitive advantage … within these infrastructure industries.”

According to Kahn, the overall mission behind Aveopt and its technologies – TerraPosition Pro included – hasn’t changed. What is changing is the drone industry, specifically the market of commercial services delivered by drones.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, a professional network services firm, estimates that the global market for commercial applications of drone technology is worth more than $127 billion. Growing markets like infrastructure, agriculture, transportation, security, mining, and other industries are pushing more drones into the sky.

“You can begin to see how the number of drones that are going to be active for commercial utilization is just really exploding,” Kahn said.