The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom reports that Raleigh-based PrecisionHawk is developing a new air traffic control system for drones.

Bob Young, an investor who recently took over as CEO of the company, is featured in what The Guardian calls an “exclusive report.” Young, a serial entrepreneur, is a co-founder and former top executive at Red Hat and also founded self-publishing company Lulu. Both firms are based in Raleigh.

The PrecisionHawk program is emerging just in time for the holidays where drones are expected to be a big seller even as controversial continues to swirl about how owners are piloting the drones – and where.

“The Guardian has gained access to the first tests of an experimental air traffic control system for drones that could open the skies to millions of low-flying unmanned aircraft,” the newspaper says.

“On an isolated cattle ranch in rural North Carolina – and under the watchful eye of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) – drone startup PrecisionHawk is putting experimental drones in the air alongside paragliders. This is the first time that human pilots have officially shared US airspace with commercial drones.”

The Guardian says that an FAA drone task force member looking into setting regulations that guidelines are “coming in time for Christmas.”

Young sees the need for a drone safety system.

“Building technology that enables drones to fly reliably and to stay away from airports and other flying objects is stupidly difficult,” Young is quoted as saying. “But safety is critically important. Without safety, you don’t fly, period.”

To help improve safety, PrecisionHawk is developing a system called Latas – or Low Altitude Traffic and Airspace Safety.

The newspaper describes Latas as “a digital air traffic control system for drones. Instead of a central radar station detecting everything in the air, each Latas-equipped aircraft reports its location, altitude, heading and speed to software in the cloud, which then automatically warns nearby drones to avoid it.”

So how did the idea for latas come about?

“One of our bright young engineers suggested using the text messaging system on cellphone towers,” Young explained. A drone could send up to 40 SMS text messages every second, detailing its progress through the air. “It actually worked beautifully, even on primitive 2G networks that can barely maintain a voice call any more.”

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