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NASA Planning Test Flights For Drone-Powered Cities

Even though there's not yet a commercially viable drone that can transport humans around, at least two Florida developers are building with a Jetsons-style future in mind. NASA this week announced that from now through August it will embark on its "final and most complex season of flight tests, called Technical Capability Level 4," which focus on the unique challenges of flying small drones in the urban landscape.

NASA predicts that what it calls unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, will soon be common in cities. The agency expects some 400,000 commercial and 2 million recreational UAS to be registered by 2020.

Since 2015, NASA has been developing an Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management project, or UTM. It has been coordinating with the Federal Aviation Administration and figuring out how drones can communicate with one another, especially as radio signals get blocked around tall buildings and GPS can experience glitches.

"A drone pilot can pre-program landing spots that are known to be safer, such as a garage rooftop or a park. But they can’t know ahead of time if there will be people standing there or a parked car," NASA officials wrote in a blog. "One solution being tested during TCL4 was developed by UTM team members at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. It allows the drone to use its camera to detect pedestrians or vehicles and, if necessary, move on to the next safe place."

NASA's summer flight testing will take place in Reno, Nevada, and Corpus Christi, Texas. The agency expects to be able to use those results to design rules that can be applied all over the country. 

In Miami — where the only helipad on a private, residential tower on the East Coast is currently being built at the Zaha Hadid-designed One Thousand Museum in Downtown Miami — some developers are already thinking ahead to drone travel.

At the under-construction, 60-story, $600M Paramount Miami Worldcenter condo in downtown, the rooftop pool can convert into a private skyport for flying cars.

Ricky Trinidad, president of Metronomic, has a plan to redevelop a strip of Grand Avenue in Coconut Grove that includes landing pads atop a five-story building.

"We will facilitate landing pads for passenger drones with access easements to public ways so that the public can use our buildings to land on our rooftops and easily access the sidewalk," Trinidad told Bisnow. "We plan to purchase our own drones to facilitate transportation for our tenants and hotel guests." 

He thinks it will be up to big-box stores to put landing pads on their buildings as well, which will help move people around and facilitate commerce. 

MarketWatch cautioned that such grandiose early plans by builders could be a marketing ploy, but also noted that Airbus, Boeing, Volocopter and Uber have all invested millions in developing automated, flying vehicles.

Trinidad — who believes that the industry will take off in two to five years, the time frame within which FAA regulations are expected — has already picked out his favorite drone models: Ehang 184, Volocopter, Lillium Jet, Boeing PAV, Airbus Vahana, EmbraerX, Airbus CityAirbus, Terrafugia TFX and Workhorse SureFly.