NASA, FAA Test Sites Conduct Largest Drone Management Test

 - April 24, 2016, 9:54 PM
A researcher with Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center readies a quadcopter for demonstration. (Photo: Lone Star UAS Center)

NASA conducted the most extensive field test to date under its UAS traffic management (UTM) effort to develop a system to manage low-flying drone traffic. The test on April 19 demonstrated simultaneous operation of multiple drones at six Federal Aviation Administration-sponsored ranges nationwide. It was the first multi-state test of the NASA UTM platform and the first coordinated test involving all six FAA ranges.

Drone operators at FAA test locations in Alaska, North Dakota, Nevada, New York, Virginia, Maryland and Texas entered flight plans into the UTM system for the demonstration. NASA engineers monitored the operations and overall “system load” remotely from NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

The UTM system checked for conflicts, approved or rejected flight plans and notified users of any constraints. Twenty-four drones flew multiple times during the three-hour test; at one point, 22 flew simultaneously. In addition to the live drones, NASA introduced “dozens” of simulated aircraft into the same airspace.

The UTM Technical Capability Level One test covered rural operations in which small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) were flown within line-of-site of the operator. The UTM project has four technical capability levels, each increasing in complexity. The fourth level will address high-density UAS operations in urban settings. NASA said it plans to turn over its UTM research to the FAA in 2019 for development.

“NASA extensively tested Technical Capability Level One and worked very closely with the FAA test sites, and the UTM research platform performed well,” said Parimal Kopardekar, manager of NASA’s Safe Autonomous Systems Project. “This test would not have been possible without the six FAA test sites—it was a collaborative effort to ensure a successful test.”

Each FAA test site determined how it would interact with the UTM platform. For example, the Northern Plains UAS test site in North Dakota used fixed-wing drones from four manufacturers, two of which built UTM software into their own ground control stations, and two that use UTM software in their aircraft. The Lone Star UAS test site in Texas launched and landed three quadcopters and one small fixed-wing drone at the regional airport in Port Mansfield, about 140 miles south of Corpus Christi.

“Using a traffic management framework to separate the aircraft and provide position awareness to air traffic control or to a mission commander helps us provide space between manned aircraft and unmanned aircraft and actually promotes the safety of integrating those two into the airspace,” said Mathew Nelson, one of the UAS pilots at the Texas site.

The FAA sites will participate in another coordinated demonstration in October in Nevada to further test the UTM platform.

In a separate announcement on April 15, NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California said it will begin a fourth flight-test series using its Ikhana Predator B unmanned aircraft to evaluate detect-and-avoid technology against manned “intruder” aircraft. General Atomics, Honeywell and RTCA Special Committee 228 are participating in the tests. The fourth flight-test series, which runs through June, calls for 15 flights and 270 encounters between aircraft.