Digital Drone Highways: a Future Transportation Network

drone highwaysAirspace Link builds digital drone highways in the air

By DRONELIFE Staff Writer Jim Magill

Just as cars and trucks do their jobs better when they have highways to travel on, as the number of unmanned aerial vehicles delivering packages or transporting medical tests expands, those drones will need highways in the sky to ensure their safe and efficient transit from Point A to Point B.

Detroit-based Airspace Link helps connect private drone operators with state and local governments to establish safe flight corridors, and helps provide drone pilots with the data they need to secure Federal Aviation Administration authorization for their operations. The company is an FAA-approved UAS service supplier of the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) system, which provides drone pilots with access to controlled airspace at or below 400 feet.

“If you were to set up these drone highways, it’s really about figuring out the safest areas for the kind of drone I’m going to fly and figuring out the probability of hurting someone on the ground in creating these corridors,” President and CEO Michael Healander said in an interview.

Building a Drone Highway

Earlier this month, Airspace Link announced its partnership with the city of Ontario, California, making Ontario the first city in California to adopt Airspace Link’s AirHub for Government platform, creating a digital drone infrastructure in the sky above the city.

Airspace Link’s technology works with the city’s existing geographic information system (GIS), a mapping system that designates significant landmarks, such as schools, hospitals, jails and the civic center, and which city officials use to manage zoning, traffic counts and speed zones. “Our system pulls in that data, and combines it with the federal rules and regulations. You start to create a ground-based hazard and risk profile that helps to isolate the safest areas to fly through the community,” Healander said.

Through its work with the city, the company also was able to get a better understanding of the airspace requirements around Ontario International Airport. Working with the FAA and the airport, Airspace Link developed a system that opened up almost 20 square miles more airspace for potential drone traffic than had previously been available.

“When they analyzed the air traffic – it goes from east to west — we were able to open up the air space on the north and south sides of the airport for more drone operations for recreational and Part 107 pilots,” Healander said. This could allow delivery companies such as UPS and FedEx to establish operations to the north and south and the airport.

The system also allows city officials to notify drone operators of emergency situations on the ground that could impact flight operations, in the same way the FAA can issue temporary flight restrictions (TRFs) under certain conditions. “If there’s a 911 call, they can create an advisory, just like a TFR,” Healander said.

Supporting Drone Operators

In addition, drone operators can use the data collected through the city’s AirHub system to help them secure FAA waivers allowing for more advanced operations. “Now as a drone operator, if I want to do COVID test kit delivery between hospitals in Ontario, I now have the support of the city,” Healander said. “Having all that data pre-created, I can create a flight plan and it will optimize the flight route and it will give me all the data that’s normally needed by the FAA to build the safety case.”

In the longer term, the establishment of the drone digital infrastructure system in Ontario is expected to have a large impact on the area’s future economic development. Brookfield, the real estate development giant, is using the system’s data to incorporate drone routes and landing sites in its designs for future communities in the region.

Further, Lisa Peterson, Airspace Link’s vice president of business development, said officials in the region are building an autonomous vehicle corridor in the Ontario area “and they’re talking about adding their drone corridor into that project.”

In a short space of time, the start-up technology company has rapidly expanded its footprint across the country. Airspace Link is currently deploying its LAANC system technology in 13 states and is engaged in a two-year project to deploy a statewide system in North Dakota. “We have taken off throughout the U.S,” Healander said. “It’s been an amazing year. We have gone from our first customer nine months ago to over 300 businesses, pilots and state and local governments,”

As with every company across the globe, the global COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on Airspace Link, at first causing a major disruption, but later creating new opportunities for growth. “During the first two months, it was tough for everyone,” Healander said. “It did slow down state and local governments a bit. It took them some time to get back online.”

However, the pandemic also highlighted the need to develop new systems for safe and rapid delivery of medical supplies and tests, and provided an incentive for some government entities to accelerate their plans for developing new drone delivery systems, he said. Airspace Link is working with various government agencies on several projects to establish systems to deliver COVID test kits by drone.

Healander said Airspace Link is making it easier for drone pilots to establish businesses or conduct recreational flights, without having to deal directly with multiple levels of state, county and city government agencies. “We’re doing that for them,” he said.


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