The UK is working with NASA on a tracking system for low-flying drones

The UK government is working with NASA to create a “drone traffic management system” that could monitor those being flown in the country.

A potential system could involve commercial drone pilots having to enter their information into an online database that holds details of their flights below 500ft.

Any system may be able to work using mobile phone/cell towers that are placed around the country.

Government officials in the House of Lords confirmed that the UK was having discussions with the 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, and 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,” said Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon.

The Lord, representing the government’s Department for Transport and Home Office, was speaking at a debate into the civilian use of drones in the UK following the publication of a committee report earlier this year.

Previously the report ‘Civilian use of drones in the EU’ said it was “impressed” by industry suggestions for an online database and said it would “urge” the government to talk to NASA about a “tracking system”.

“We also recommend that they consider developing a system for sophisticated small RPAS which would not only manage flight plans and coordinate airspace, but would enable identification of each RPAS and its pilot,” the report said.

“This will be essential to enforce existing and future laws governing RPAS use.”

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In June the Guardian revealed NASA is developing technology to track commercial and civilian drones using cell coverage.

The federal agency, alongside Verizon, the biggest wireless telecom company in the US, could begin testing whether phone towers “could support communications and surveillance of unmanned aerial systems at low altitudes” this year. It could even go as far as being able to geo-fence areas that drones are not allowed to fly in.

In its written response to the committee report, which was published earlier this year, the UK government said its talks with NASA involved the tracking of low-flying drones.

“The Government can confirm that we are in discussions with NASA Aeronautics about a range RPAS related topics, including what they are doing to track operations at below 500ft,” the response to the report said.

The idea behind the creation of a system in the UK would be to help police, who will have more power over enforcing drone misuse, identify a drone’s pilot. A “system which could track and trace all drones” would help the police and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) – the regulator for drones in the UK – to bring prosecutions when pilots are being breaking the law, said Baroness O’Cathain, who chaired the committee looking at drones.   

Between 2013 and 2014 the CAA completed two prosecutions for breaches of air rules. One was due to a drone being flown close to a nuclear power station and another case involved the pilot no longer being able to see their drone.

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Lord Ahmad also said that the government has been looking at the creation of an app that can track and manage small drones that are owned and flown in the country.

“The Government have received several proposals for such an app, but the development of this technology is still at an embryonic stage.

“We will continue to work with SMEs in the development of such a tool and I will update the noble Lord accordingly.”

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