NASA, FAA Discuss Formal Collaboration on Small Drones

 - September 17, 2015, 11:51 AM
Online retailer Amazon released this airspace concept for small drone traffic at the NASA UTM conference in July. (Image: Amazon)

The Federal Aviation Administration, NASA and standards organization RTCA plan to form a committee to set standards for the commercial use of small drones, an effort that would resemble what the parties are already doing in the case of large unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

The effort to develop performance standards for small drones has gained momentum since NASA Ames Research Center hosted a well-attended conference in July focused on the Unmanned Aerial System Traffic Management, or UTM, system it is developing with some 120 collaborators from industry and academia. Bringing NASA and the FAA together under the auspices of RTCA, which has official status as a federal advisory committee to the FAA, would align the research and regulatory approaches to small drones.

NASA already participates on RTCA Special Committee 228, which has been engaged since 2013 in developing “detect and avoid” and communications and control performance standards for large UAS. In a related effort, the space agency, the FAA, manufacturer General Atomics and avionics supplier Honeywell have collaborated on collision-avoidance research using NASA’s five-ton Ikhana unmanned aircraft, an MQ-9 Predator B.

Speaking at an Air Force Association conference in National Harbor, Md., on September 15, RTCA president Margaret Jenny said discussions are under way to start a new collaboration of the federal agencies on small drones, which the FAA has defined as aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds. The effort would develop performance standards, or operational parameters, for drones that are used for commercial purposes, such as Amazon’s proposed Prime Air package-delivery service. It is not aimed at drones flown by hobbyists for recreational purposes.

“We are working with NASA and FAA right now and expect that we will have some activity starting up to address some minimum performance standards and a self-certification process for those who are operating these commercially,” Jenny said. “The issue with those who are not [is a] huge challenge for the FAA to solve. We’re going to be trying to carve out the commercial aspect of that.”

Also speaking at the conference, Edward Bolton, FAA assistant administrator for NextGen, confirmed that the agency is consulting with NASA and RTCA “about an overarching forum that would try to find exactly how we’re going to manage” small commercial drones flying at 500 feet or less above the ground.

NASA’s effort to develop a UTM system, which would manage low-flying drone traffic, started in 2013 as a technical challenge under the agency’s Safe Autonomous Systems Operations Project. It was officially launched in the current federal fiscal year, receiving $15.6 million in funding. NASA plans to achieve the UTM vision in four increments, or software builds, supporting spacing, collision avoidance and trajectory management functions for increasingly dense levels of drone traffic.

Among presenters at the “UTM 2015” conference that NASA Ames hosted at Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View, Calif., was Amazon, which floated its own concept of a future airspace system accommodating small drones. It would feature segregated, or restricted, airspace below 500 feet, leaving the zone closest to the ground for small drones and effectively separating them from manned aviation.

The lower zone would be further stratified, with the airspace below 200 feet reserved for localized traffic, such as for photography, surveying or inspection operations, and flights of less sophisticated drones. The airspace between 200 and 400 feet would be a “high-speed transit” layer for more sophisticated machines with sense and avoid capability, flying beyond the operator’s line-of-sight.