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Colorado man pursues drone traffic solution with NASA Research Grant

Drone Traffic was awarded a Small Business Innovation Research grant with NASA


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Rick Zelenka is a man of many talents and careers — aerospace and mechanical engineer, aerospace executive, longtime pilot and, most recently patent attorney. Now, he is adding a new title to this list: entrepreneur. 

His company, Drone Traffic, stems from a problem that Zelenka had while he was flying a small cessna plane out of Centennial Airport — drones. Currently, non-commercial, hobby pilots have no way to track or receive warnings about drones in or near their flight path. The solution that Zelenka came up with is a real-time way to identify drones, similar to the way the Waze app for driving. 

The emergence (and disturbance) of drones in the airspace is a growing problem.  “Five years ago it was just me being a little paranoid to be honest, but then I found out you really did hear in the news of drones hitting aircraft,” Zelenka says. “And then now you fast forward to now where there's over 2 million registered drones in the U. S. and the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] documents 100 incidents-per-month of drones operating where they should not be.”

While these drones don’t always act with malicious intent, they can have negative consequences. “That’s what motivated us,” he says. “The FAA predicts that by 2022 there's going to be 3 million registered drones in the U.S. So they're here, this problem isn’t going away.”

Zelenka’s concept is based on two pieces of hardware: a lightweight radar mounted on the exterior of the plane, and a display mounted in the cockpit. These two pieces of hardware would communicate the presence of drones in the area and broadcast found drones  in real-time to other users of the application. This idea has since resulted in two patents — one for an "airborne drone traffic broadcasting and alerting system" and the second for a "drone alerting and reporting system" —  with a third patent pending. Now, according to Zelenka, he is working to put “meat on the bones of the idea.” 

Zelenka in June received a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from NASA for his new company, Drone Traffic in partnership with air traffic software company Mosaic ATM. The grant awarded the company a six-month contract for $125,000 to work toward developing safety improvements for pilots as they interact with drones and perform research to integrate drones into the airspace. 

Now, the company has full-time employees that are performing data analysis and software development to build the product out. By the end of the contact, Zelenka expects to have a working prototype based on the software the team is writing as well as a report on the research they have conducted. 

“We nominally hope that by the end of 2020, we would have an actual product like an app that people could subscribe to and operate,” Zelenka says. 

Also in February, at the end of the contract, the company will re-apply for a “phase two” of the SBIR grant, which would provide a 24-month contract for $750,000. If awarded, Drone Traffic and Mosaic ATM would be able to build a bigger team of people, deepen and build-out the product. 

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Ali Longwell

Ali Longwell is the digital editor at ColoradoBiz. She has also written for SDxCentral, a B2B online technology publication, as well as Denver-area lifestyle magazines 5280, Denver Life Magazine, Avid Lifestyle and more. She can be reached at alongwell@cobizmag.com

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