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Drone traffic management system
Artwork lays out a concept for a traffic management system that would allow drones to share the skies with each other as well as larger aircraft. (NASA Illustration)

Boeing says it’s aiming to create a traffic management system for drones that makes use of artificial intelligence, blockchain technology — and one of the companies in its investment portfolio.

SparkCognition will be Boeing’s partner in the traffic management project. Last year, the Texas-based AI company benefited from a $32.5 million investment round that included funding from Boeing HorizonX Ventures.

Boeing is also creating a new business group, known as Boeing NeXt, to leverage the company’s research and development activities and investments in areas such as autonomous flight, smart cities, advanced propulsion and other parts of the wider transportation ecosystem.

“We’re at a point in history where technological advances and societal trends are converging to demand bold solutions and a different way to travel,” Greg Hyslop, Boeing’s chief technology officer, said today in a statement issued to coincide with this week’s Farnborough International Airshow near London.

“Boeing has the experience and expertise to safely and efficiently shape this emerging world of travel and transport,” Hyslop said. “Through Boeing NeXt, we intend to build on our legacy of opening up new frontiers to move people and goods with proven technologies.”

Air traffic management for commercial drones, known formally as unmanned aircraft systems or UAS, is expected to loom as one of those frontiers.

The system envisioned by Boeing and SparkCognition would track drones as they fly through designated traffic corridors. It would also incorporate a standardized programming interface to support package delivery, industrial inspection and other commercial applications.

SparkCognition has been developing an automated platform that makes use of blockchain and cognitive computing to keep drones on track.

“Estimated by some analysts at $3 trillion, the urban aerial mobility opportunity will lead to the creation of the largest new market in our lifetimes,” said Amir Husain, SparkCognition’s founder and CEO. “The world’s No. 1 aviation leader partnering with the world’s most innovative industrial AI company means that unparalleled experience in safety, innovation, scale and reliability will be brought to bear to address this monumental opportunity.”

Other companies have their own ideas about drone traffic management. AT&T, Amazon and Alphabet’s Wing venture are among the companies working on such systems. So are Kittyhawk and Matternet, two other companies in the Boeing HorizonX portfolio.

NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration have been leading an industry-wide standardization effort for drone traffic management — and because Boeing is a major player in that effort, it’s natural to assume that the newly announced initiative will be consistent with the emerging rules of the road.

In addition to drone traffic management, Boeing NeXt will bring together projects and partnerships such as hypersonic flight, autonomous flight and electric propulsion.

Boeing said electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing vehicles, or eVTOL craft, will be a major focus. Last year, Boeing acquired Aurora Flight Sciences, one of the pioneers in autonomous eVTOL flight.

HorizonX has invested in several other companies that touch on NeXt frontiers, such as Near Earth Autonomy (autonomous flight control systems), Reaction Engines (hypersonic flight), Fortem Technologies (drone radar navigation systems) and Zunum Aero (electric airplane propulsion).

“By taking a holistic approach that combines Boeing’s strength in technological innovation with new business models and non-traditional partnerships, we are laying the foundation for the future commercial mobility ecosystem,” said Steve Nordlund, who will lead Boeing NeXt in addition to serving as vice president of HorizonX.

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