Future Tense

NASA and Verizon Are Using Cell Towers to Create an Air-Traffic Control for Drones

Flying a drone at the Ames Research Center ahead of the 2015 Unmanned Aerial Systems Traffic Management Convention in July.

Image from NASA

NASA and Verizon are working together on a $500,000 effort to develop a sort of air-traffic control on cell towers for small, low-altitude drones. Documents that the Guardian obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that the project is developing ways to track and communicate with unmanned aerial vehicles.  

The partners are working out of the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley “to jointly explore whether cell towers … could support communications and surveillance of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) at low altitudes.” The first tests of the system are scheduled for this summer, and Verizon is working toward offering things like navigation and data for drones by 2017. The Guardian reports that the final goal for completing the research is 2019.


The project would provide an organized framework and safety mechanism as both corporations and private citizens expand their use of drones. The system could have features like geofencing for no-fly zones, navigation for avoiding collisions, and even the ability to ground drones because of bad weather. They system could also potentially prioritize air traffic in high-density areas. (Unfortunately, NASA and Verizon’s system probably would not have saved Enrique Iglesias from his drone-related injuries.)

Since the FAA is still debating a proposal for drone regulation, any NASA/Verizon system will have to be adaptable based on the weight, distance, and speed requirements the agency imposes.

Google and Amazon are both working on drone research at Ames as well. Google has a $450,000 contract to test its self-driving cars and share data from its drone testing, Project Wing, with NASA. Amazon’s contract is for $1.8 million to work on developing systems for Prime Air.

As drone technology goes mainstream, we may see more unlikely allies entering the field together.