Earlier today a Raleigh, N.C., drone services firm called PrecisionHawk issued a press release trumpeting that it’s patented unmanned air traffic system management (UTM). In other sectors this might be news akin to former Vice President Al Gore’s assertion that he “took the initiative in creating the Internet.”
But in the drone industry it’s par for the course.
As the landscape, or skyscape, for what proponents say will be a $63.6 billion commercial drone services market by 2025 is defined, a variety of drone or drone-services providers are seeking to corner their own slice of the unmanned air vehicle sector by “patenting” its fundamental building blocks.
PrecisionHawk provides enterprise drone services, from infrastructure inspection via drone to analytics and flight management, to what it says are “4 out the top 10 electric utility companies in the U.S.” Other large customers reportedly include ExxonMobil XOM , John Deere, Monsanto and Verizon VZ , and PrecisionHawk says it has attracted over $100 million in venture capital.
The company is no stranger to the FAA, having participated in the Agency’s Pathfinder Program for developing beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations for drones. PrecisionHawk was responsible for conducting research to determine operational strategies and technology solutions for BVLOS it says, research which led to it being granted the first nationwide BVLOS waiver from the FAA.
Now, it has patented methodologies that aim to “solve the scalability challenge [of UTM] through technology and automation,” says PrecisionHawk vice president Tyler Collins.
PrecisionHawk’s press release states that it has been awarded two patents for an Automated Unmanned Air Traffic Control System that includes real-time aerial deconfliction and separation using wireless communication.
The patents address both the classic “sense-and-avoid” problem of drones in immediate proximity running into each other (or manned aircraft) and the management of densely trafficked airspace where competing flight paths are “de-conflicted.” This is achieved by “transmitting real-time flight data from drones to a UTM server prior to and while in-flight.”
Just so you know, there is an ongoing debate in the UAS industry about whether collision avoidance and traffic management is best handled by an overarching intelligent, centralized system on the ground or by sensors and intelligent autonomous systems onboard UAS themselves.
PrecisionHawk’s system falls into the former camp. Its first patent is for technology that allows drones to send real-time telemetry to flight servers to avoid collisions while in the air. In simple terms, a drone continuously broadcasts its location to ground servers via an unspecified radio-frequency link.
The situationally-aware ground system compares these with other real-time position reports and alerts a drone operator if a collision is impending so action can be taken. It’s similar to the current interaction between pilots of manned aircraft who take direction from air traffic controllers to avoid crossing paths with other airplanes.
The second patent describes a means by which drone operators transmit their flight plans to a traffic management server prior to a flight to see if there is a potential conflict with the flight path of another drone. “The traffic management server receives similar data for other drones and manned aircraft. If there is potential for collision, the traffic management server sends an alert to the drone so the operator can adjust the flight plan,” PrecisionHawk’s release says.
The patents are purposely short on detail, declining to specify what types of onboard or ground systems drones and servers will use, merely calling them “computing devices,” Details of the data transmitted, its mode (cellular, satellite or even some future technology like photonic communication), standard instructions, traffic priority, latency and more are omitted.
Collins says PrecisionHawk began work on a UAS traffic management concept in 2013. It culminated in 2015 with the company’s Low Altitude Tracking and Avoidance System (LATAS). LATAS was designed to provide flight planning, tracking, and avoidance “for every drone in the sky using real-time flight data transmission based on existing worldwide cellular networks,” the company explains.
“We asked, ‘How do we have the drone self-report back to an air traffic control system similar to what ADS-B has become for the manned air traffic space?” Collins recalls. “How do we have a system looking broadly at the airspace in a very automated way just like we have human controllers?”
PrecisionHawk didn’t provide specifics on how it answered those questions, instead describing basic methodology.
“We get the information from the drone and then the [central system] is able to digest that, not only provide notifications back [to the drone] but potentially also be able to provide suggested flight plans back to the drone. It’s likely that in the short term there’s still going to have to be a responsible person accepting a modified flight plan just as there is for manned aircraft today. The whole goal of this is not to try to reinvent the wheel,” Collins says.
If so, one could reasonably ask if have they patented a process that already exists.
PrecisionHawk is not the only firm in the drone industry with what could be described as a broad patent. Last February, Reno, Nevada-based drone delivery company Flirtey issued a press release highlighting its patent for a “Parachute Deployment System (PDS) for unmanned aircraft.”
Other firms have developed their own parachute systems with features similar to Flirtey’s, most saying they did so prior to or at the same time as the Nevada company. But Flirtey CEO Matthew Sweeny says his patent is sufficiently broad to cover most aspects of drone parachute design. He told AUVSI’s Unmanned Systems magazine:
“When you combine all of this, you’ve got a patent that protects the key technologies that any drone manufacturer is going to need to fly over heavily populated areas… Anyone who wants to fly a drone over people safely is likely to infringe on this patent.”
Flirtey plans to guard its patent. Is PrecisionHawk similarly serious about its patent scope?
“We’re definitely serious about this,” Collins affirms. “When we wrote the patent it wasn’t just based on an idea that we came up with… When we filed [the patents] we went through extensive patent and art searches.”
There may well have been little in the way of filings for an “Automated Unmanned Air Traffic Control System” but the fundamental idea of a system of air vehicle control, including degrees of automation, existed long before.
On the question of whether PrecisionHawk expects other UTM developers will infringe on its patents, Collins would say only, “Knowing that there are many stakeholders in the UAS space working on various UTM products, we look forward to continuing to work across the industry to push UTM forward in a smart and safe manner.”
He offered a similarly vague answer to the question, does PrecisionHawk plan to guard its patents?
“Drawing on our six years of research around UTM, we will leverage our knowledge and capabilities to help ensure UTM is open and accessible to users.”
The FAA declined to offer an opinion on PrecisonHawk’s patents, saying, “The FAA does not comment on patents for other companies.”
It may not be worth wondering if the FAA now considers itself a “company” in light of this non-comment but it is worth noting that the agency’s own definition of UTM omits any mention of a patent-able methodology.
Instead it simply says that UTM “is a ‘traffic management’ ecosystem for uncontrolled operations that is separate from, but complementary to, the FAA’s Air Traffic Management (ATM) system.”
However the “lack of knowns” in the drone industry is encouraging the kind of patent exercises seen above. Such broad intellectual property claims will likely be narrowed by the Courts, a process that is already beginning in the self-driving car space.
Until the FAA and Department of Transportation can flesh out the details of UTM, densely populated drone airspace and more, the commercial pressures that are driving the drone industry will continue to make big patent claims par for the course.
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