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Silent Falcon helps NASA test drone traffic management

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Albuquerque drone maker Silent Falcon UAS Technologies is helping NASA develop a nationwide traffic management system for unmanned aircraft.

The company’s solar-powered drone, designed and manufactured in New Mexico, will be used in flight testing later this year to help NASA gather information needed so new traffic management software can be used for low-altitude flights, said Silent Falcon CEO John Brown.

“We’re part of a large team of companies working with NASA on a cloud-based software system to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace,” Brown said. “It will be similar to the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control system, but for low-flying (unmanned aircraft systems.) We’ll do flight trials later this year.”

NASA is developing individual software to manage different types of drones for flying in rural and urban zones. That includes flight procedures and rules for aircraft flying beyond visual line of sight, tracking capabilities for safety in populated areas and potential mitigation measures for flights in high-density urban zones.

Silent Falcon flights will specifically test how pre-flight logs are integrated with NASA’s traffic management system, Brown said.

“Those tests will help define what kind of information is needed from operators before flights and how all that interfaces with the NASA system,” Brown said.

Effective traffic management is critical to open the skies to commercial drones.

The FAA is not expected to release comprehensive rules for unmanned commercial aircraft until later this year. But it has already authorized more than 5,000 private companies to operate drones for specific uses in the U.S., said Philip Finnegan, director of corporate analysis at the Teal Group, a Virginia-based aerospace and defense analysis firm.

“We assume each company is operating one or two drones, so there may already be up to 10,000 aircraft now authorized to fly,” Finnegan said. “We need safe air traffic management systems in place to fully develop the commercial market, and that’s what NASA is trying to do.”

Once FAA rules are in place and traffic management systems are operating, the unmanned aircraft systems market is expected to rapidly expand, Finnegan said.

This year, the global market for drones — including commercial aircraft, military operations and research and development activities — will reach about $7 billion, according to the Teal Group. It’s expected to grow to about $12.5 billion by 2025.

Silent Falcon, which launched in 2010, builds its aircraft at a 5,000-square-foot facility in Albuquerque’s Southeast Heights. Armed with solar panels on the wings and lithium polymer batteries for energy storage, the vehicle can stay aloft longer than most drones on the market today, Brown said. It can be mounted with a range of sensors for various defense and commercial operations.

The company reached about $1 million in sales in foreign markets last year and expects to grow to more than $5 million this year. It’s now seeking to lease space part of Google Inc.’s 60,000-square-foot building at the Moriarty Municipal Airport, where Google previously operated its own drone subsidiary, Titan Aerospace.