Switzerland May Become First Country To Integrate Drones Into Air Traffic Control, And That May Set A Good Example

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Eric Lieberman Managing Editor
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Switzerland is reportedly set to become the first country to allow unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — more commonly known as drones — to more freely operate in airspace by integrating them into its larger air traffic system, Ars Technica reported Friday.

Many people have become more and more concerned with the advent of the nascent technology, especially since there have been some close calls between drones and their much larger counterparts, commercial airliners. But Switzerland apparently sees an opportunity to include UAVs in the larger system, potentially helping air traffic management, as well as more casual drone operators, in the process.

Specifically, the Swiss air traffic control operator Skyguide wants to combine its own data and tools with a software company called AirMap, based in Santa Monica, Calif, which has a platform that digitally maps airspace, according to Ars Technica.

Using their own technological features as well as AirMap’s, Switzerland will create a digital registry of drones and their operators. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the overseeing government agency in the U.S., has a registry as well, but doesn’t appear to have plans to integrate it into American air traffic control’s databases or grids.

Switzerland will also create a system in which data and digital communications can be shared more efficiently, therefore empowering UAV controllers to obtain official permission more quickly. Operators, for example, will be shown where the boundaries are for that specific instance of flight.

So overall, Switzerland sees integration, and official registration, as an important first step to ensure that they can keep track of all the flying vehicles, thus presumably increasing accountability and ability to fly drones.

“We’re bringing in the actual radar surveillance feeds that air traffic controllers use in providing that high fidelity data directly to drones and drone operators,” Ben Marcus, cofounder and chairman of AirMap, told Ars Technica. “The idea is to solve relatively simple problems which limit opening airspace to drones.”

Drones in the U.S. often interfere in certain situations, like emergencies. There have been several instances in which local and federal authorities responding to a fire or other public crisis say UAVs have gotten in the way of their remedial efforts. But it is not always easy to identify the human culprit. Also, while many know they shouldn’t be operating drones near emergency situations like forest fires, they may not be aware that there is one occurring nearby. A system like Switzerland’s — where authorities would be more likely to determine the UAV operator, and that operator would be more likely to know where they are and are not allowed — could conceivably help decrease the chances of such problems transpiring.

Regardless if the integration is a novel idea that portends success, it helps show how countries around the world are more assertively strategizing to create the most safe, but also commercially conducive regulatory environment for the budding technology.

Amazon, for example, initially chose the U.K. over the U.S. to test its drone delivery services because America’s regulations are too burdensome (at least for now), and in fact, render a lot of prospective UAV initiatives impossibly compliant.

Eli Dourado, then director of the Technology Policy Program at the Mercatus Center, and Ryan Hagemann, director of technology and civil liberties policy at the Niskanen Center, told The Daily Caller News Foundation several months ago that Amazon essentially had no other choice.

“The fact that Amazon chose to go overseas to experiment with drone delivery is totally unsurprising,” said Dourado, who is now the head of global policy and communications at Boom Supersonic, a startup developing supersonic transportation technology. “FAA rules prohibit drone flights that are entirely autonomous or beyond the line of sight of human operators.”

“Research, development, and testing of drones started going overseas years ago,” Hagemann explained, “as a result of the FAA dragging its feet on establishing clear rules for commercial operations.”

Opinions of the FAA and America’s overall progress on UAVs may have changed since, especially since Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao appears to be placing some priority on the societal issue and technology. Nevertheless, Switzerland appears to be propelling itself forward by making personal UAV travel more doable, and air travel in general potentially more safe.

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