From commercial aerial photography to the hottest gift, unnamed aerial vehicles (UAVs) have quickly claimed a share of the global airspace, and they may have done so at a pace faster than anyone could have imagined. Reports of possible encounters with UAVs have increased dramatically since 2014, with the FAA receiving more than 100 such reports monthly from August 22, 2015 through January 31, 2016.


Such growth is the reason the southern Arizona company Drone Control Systems has set its sights on ensuring “drones”, as they are most commonly known, remain compliant with established rules and regulations governing flight operations while keeping the ability to fly in the hands of businesses and hobbyists. “We’re trying to grow a community of responsible drone operators,” says company President James Lawrence.


Work so far is paying off for the company, which is based at the Arizona Center for Innovation, a business incubator at the University of Arizona Tech Park in Tucson. Drone Control Systems was named winner of the Get Started Tucson, a “Shark Tank”-style business-pitch competition hosted recently by Cox Business and Inc. magazine. After winning the prize package worth $10,000, including $5,000 in cash, Lawrence indicated the cash would be used to complete development of a proprietary semiconductor chip that uses cellular communications data to collect positioning information during drone flight.


Knowing the position of UAVs is critical to Drone Control Systems’ Local Area Drone Dispatch and Authorization System (LADDAS), which reduces the possibility of drones entering into restricted airspaces. The immediate effect is fewer drone incidents, which in turn lowers the potential for property damage, injury or even death. “We’ll sell our product as a public safety factor,” Lawrence says.


The five components of LADDAS are:

1)      Drone-mounted transponders that transmit GPS data to the system

2)      Drone operator's display mobile application

3)      Regulatory enforcement display mobile application

4)      Administrator's console system

5)      Microsoft Azure-based cloud communication backbone


For operators, the critical piece is the transponder, whose sale price is expected to be $25 each. The first generation of the unit weighed 60 grams and the second generation is about half that. As this story was being reported, Lawrence was to meet with an Arizona company that indicated it could mass produce the transponders to meet the target price and they could be ready for sales as soon as November. 


The entire system offers the means for law enforcement and regulatory agencies to keep the skies safer.


LADDAS features include identifying compliant vs. non-compliant drones, monitoring and recording flight activities, creating permissible drone flight areas and no-fly zones, and alerting operators to other drones nearby. That means instead of a 911 complaint about a flyover resulting in police action, LADDAS would enable operator identification and a sense of how long to expect the flight to continue based on flight plans, Lawrence says.


Just as businesses could benefit, so could hobbyists. Lawrence says a teen operator is not as likely to know there are guidelines such as not flying higher than 400 feet or over a water treatment plant. To help, transponders could provide guidance to users so when they fly higher than permitted altitudes, the operators would be notified.


The original intent of LADDAS was to ensure operators adhere to federal regulations, but something new is on the horizon. A measure making its way through the Arizona Legislature could bring its own set of penalties for violators. “The proposal opens up huge issues,” he says.


To make sure LADDAS can work as planned, Drone Control Systems looked for a controlled test site for a pilot project. When looking for a community, “it needed to be proactive” in its approach to UAV activity, Lawrence says. The company found the town of Sahuarita was “really interested in what we were doing.” Victor Gonzalez, Sahuarita’s economic development manager, says, “LADDAS ensures that drone operators will operate within the defined rules and regulations established, and provides the town with the ability to regulate and authorize safe drone flight operations within our community and public spaces."


Trials include testing hardware and software on land that will become the Quail Creek-Veterans Municipal Park when it officially opens in late summer. As trials continued, a crew from the “Worldwide Business with Kathy Ireland®” television series broadcast on the Fox Business Network and Bloomberg International planned to shoot video of the work in Arizona and interview Lawrence for an upcoming show. It seems the sky is truly the limit for Lawrence and his company.


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