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.

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.

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

If only that were true. The FAA is panicking, just a little bit, about the rapid increase in the number and capability of drones now available to the general public. Drone sightings by pilots in 2015 are set to triple or even quadruple from last year. The FAA estimates that 700,000 more quadcopters will be sold to Americans in the run up to Christmas, prompting a last-minute drone registration program.

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