What is The Next Big Job in Government: Air Traffic Controller?


If you believe all the hype around the drone and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) markets, our skies will be dotted by thousands of small aircraft.  These aircraft were originally used more for military applications but the rise in consumer use places the market well above $4.5 billion by 2024, depending on which industry analyst forecast you lean towards.

Early adopters of drones have demonstrated both the problems one can witness when there are no rules or guidelines, and the promises a new field offers.  Amateur users are host to unsanctioned races in open spaces; photographers scheduling spur of the moment flight plans, and drones finding themselves in the paths of firefighting planes and helicopters have government officials all but stall the use of drones.   While it’s still too early to know what the future brings, the early applications in government, scientific research, and commercial applications are very exciting.

Governments like Horry County, SC are using drones to map coastal erosion, agriculture firms are using the devices to collect information on crops, and public safety personnel such as Los Angeles are using drones for search and rescue and to monitor crowds. Even commercial delivery of everything from packages to food is already becoming a reality.  And if these applications aren’t enough to make one stand in awe of the future, several prototypes have emerged that can carry a single human for short travel.

So, where am I going with all this speculation?  I strongly believe governments need to get ahead of the drone industry before it’s staring us in the face. FCC bans, municipal restrictions, and industry groups providing guidelines can only address existing use cases as we truly cannot predict the future of all the applications drones may fill. Much like driverless and autonomous vehicle markets, the technology will make way into full use and governments will be forced to catch up to the technology.

This drone movement leads me to believe there are real opportunities for governments and contractors to fill a new void in the employment ranging from pilots, urban planners, to programmers. Stop for a minute and think about all the work that has gone into place for decades to plan, monitor, and construct infrastructure for pedestrians, bicycles, and vehicles on our road systems.  Now we are faced with the potential to plan and monitor small aircraft in our airways.  How do we avoid collisions?  Do we create lanes or drone corridors in the air? How do we license vehicles for tracking? How do we plan for emergency drones?  Do we need a new sensor oriented infrastructure?

On the one hand, one could ask the question, will state and local governments begin to staff local air traffic controllers to monitor our air ways?  What will the dashboard to monitor all this traffic look like?  Will it look like the air traffic controllers we use to monitor airplanes?  Or will it look more like the command centers monitoring traffic cameras to alter traffic conditions?

I believe the safest, more immediate job we need to tackle is planning and constructing the air corridors and the sensor oriented infrastructure that will provide feedback.  Urban planners and civil engineers will need to beginning looking at 3D as a need to have technology as opposed to a nice to have approach to modeling our communities.  Thankfully, this technology is readily available.  We can begin to develop sophisticated geospatial digital surrogates where we can model existing conditions while we test and model future development.  Today’s 3D modeling could be potentially combined with real time monitoring of the environment and the drones, within an operational dashboard. But before getting ahead of ourselves, step one is to build the 3D representations of our communities.

Let’s not get caught in designing our communities on the fly as we adjust to drone applications that may be too important to ignore.   Plan and build today, monitor tomorrow.

Christopher Thomas is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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