You've heard of the Internet of Things – the generic name given to all the various networked sensors, machines, devices and even buildings in the world – but most of those "things" stay in one place for the most part. The world is primed for an explosion of autonomous ambulatory devices, which led a team of engineers from the University of Waterloo in Canada to draft a conceptual framework for an "Internet of Drones."
The authors of a paper on the concept (linked at the bottom of the page) lay out what is essentially a structure for how drone traffic could be managed. It combines elements of the current air traffic control system, cellular networks and the internet.
The paper proposes terminology for key components of the system, with airspace divided up into "zones," each managed by a "zone service provider" (ZSP) that operates their own section of airspace.
The zone service provider, which could be software-based rather than an actual human operator, is sort of like a combination of a cell tower and an air traffic controller for a specific airport. Drones and zone service providers communicate via the cloud to ensure that autonomous traffic flows through that zone safely, and according to whatever rules have been established for that zone. When a drone passes into a new zone, it is handed off in much the same way that a wireless device is transferred to a new cell tower as it travels.
The infrastructure can also allow for third parties outside the zone (such as administrators, retailers on either end of a delivery or possibly even consumers) to communicate with drones in flight. This would be particularly useful for proposed drone delivery services like those that Amazon, Google and others are working on.
The paper suggests that the existing cell network base stations could be used to actually deploy the system.
"Since these base stations are already deployed, the physical space is available and they are capable of running the ZSP software," it reads. "Therefore, they seem well positioned to implement ZSPs and provide wide network coverage for [the Internet of Drones]."
Within each zone, defined airways, intersections and nodes are established, which can be thought of as being similar to the system of roads, intersections and destinations that cars currently use on the ground. Even though drones could theoretically fly anywhere in the three-dimensional airspace, the idea is to establish designated airways and regulate traffic through them to avoid collisions. Drones would also be responsible for avoiding collisions with objects outside the system (such as birds) on their own, and keeping the ZSP advised of those maneuvers.
Plenty of others are also working on how the coming, drone-filled world will fly. NASA has been working with Exelis on another drone-tracking system, but it's not immediately clear if it could integrate with the newly-proposed architecture.