Manned aircraft are guided through skies and routed (or re-routed) through air traffic control. But what’s the equivalent of air traffic control for drones? Look to the Wing Remote Operations Center for a glimpse at what the future of drone air traffic control might operate like.
Air traffic controllers are ground-based aviation experts, there to direct aircraft for a few reasons including preventing collisions, organizing and expediting the flow of air traffic, and providing information and other support for pilots. They often operate in tall towers located on airport property. When it comes to building an equivalent Remote Operations Center, there are certainly some similarities. But this model of a Remote Operations Center also shows differences.
Wing, which is a subsidiary of Alphabet and a sister company to Google, recently shared a video that pulls back the curtain on how it’s operating. While there is no clear system of air traffic control for drones in the U.S. (at least not yet), Wing — which has one of the largest drone fleets in the U.S. given its delivery operations — has its own series of Remote Operations Centers.
The first Wing Remote Operations Center operated at Wing’s headquarters in Palo Alto, California. Wing has since added a second Remote Operations Center located in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Wing expanded to the Dallas suburb of Frisco at the end of 2021 where it deliveries items to real peoples’ homes from Walgreens.
Wing’s drones are fully autonomous, meaning there is no pilot in a room maneuvering a joystick through FPV goggles. Its delivery drones fly autonomous routes, and human staff at operations centers monitor those drones to make sure they’re doing their jobs.
What happens inside a Wing Remote Operations Center?
As is the case with a manned air traffic controlled tower, Pilots in Command (or PICs) stationed in these remote locations are not focused on one aircraft, but rather are overseeing multiple simultaneous flights across entire service areas.
“This is possible because of the highly automated and reliable nature of our system. Individual flights do not require human interaction, as our flight navigation system plans its own routes, and then the aircraft execute those routes,” according to a statement from Wing. “The system performs its own health checks, flags issues if they arise, and responds to contingencies as needed. That frees up Wing’s operators to oversee the entire system across large areas and many drones.”
The PICs watch big screens that show aircraft as they complete missions, weather alerts, the air traffic and the overall system health.
Wing posted a brief video to its YouTube channel, showing what a day-in-a-life at these Remote Operations Centers looks like (and the answer is that it does look a lot like an air traffic control center):
And what’s different about these versus the air traffic controller towers you’re used to seeing in airports? A lot. For starters, these offices cover broad areas — so far that they can even cover multiple time zones.
And in this case, the flights are all automated, rather than flown by a manned pilots. Thus, the operators on the ground at the center are there to monitor the entire system and respond only as needed.
Though, should some sort of situation arise that requires hands-on intervention (a relatively common occurrence might be something like repositioning a drone on its charging pad), Ground Support Operators are based in each service area to dispatch to an aircraft’s location.
What the Wing Remote Operations Center means for the state of the drone industry
Wing is largely considered the second-largest drone delivery company in the world, behind Zipline. But the maturity of such a system could help Wing take the lead. (It doesn’t hurt that Wing is rapidly expanding its delivery operations, including a recent Wing partnership with DoorDash to deliver food and other convenience items via drone, as well as news that Wing is also set to expand into Ireland in 2023.
There are no formal drone Remote Operations Centers in the U.S. that are dictated by major organizations or government groups, such as the Federal Aviation Administration. So far, something like the Wing Remote Operations Center is largely the closest thing we have to an air traffic control tower for drones.
But given all the talk about Remote ID (major Remote ID regulation actually went into effect in September 2022), things could change. By Sept. 16, 2023, all drone operators must begin using Remote ID-compliant drones. And when that time comes, there will be greater ability to have facilities like the one Alphabet has demonstrated. But even Alphabet is not rushing the rollout.
“We’re just getting started with this new operating model, and it will take time for it to expand across the industry,” said Mark Blanks, Head of Flight Operations at Wing. “With the technology that we’ve built, we can leverage the talent of a human operator to manage ever greater areas of responsibility. As drone delivery grows, I believe we’ll need more Remote Operations Facilities like these, and that’s going to create some interesting new career opportunities for all types of aviation enthusiasts.”
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