NASA Drives Vision of Air Traffic Management for Drones

 - December 22, 2016, 1:44 PM
NASA graphic helps illustrate the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Traffic Management (UTM) system. (Photo: NASA)

Quite apart from the drone the neighborhood kid sails over the hedgerow, the FAA and industry observers expect that hundreds of thousands of small, commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) will eventually seek access to the nation’s airspace. For some four years now, the NASA-led UAS Traffic Management (UTM) research effort has worked to shape the rules and capabilities of this coming low-altitude ecosystem.

Spearheaded by NASA senior engineer for air transportation systems Parimal Kopardekar—better known as “P.K.”—the UTM concept of a low-altitude airspace management system for drones dates to 2012. The space agency provided seed money for the effort initially, then established it as a program with $15.6 million in funding in Fiscal Year 2015. Some 120 UAS manufacturers, software system developers, communications companies and other entities answered a NASA solicitation to collaborate on the system development; a number have formalized their participation through Space Act Agreements. NASA listed 65 “UTM Partners” as of September.

The space agency and the FAA have formed a joint research transition team, and plans call for transferring UTM technology to the FAA by 2019.

In October, testers demonstrated UTM Technical Capability Level 2 (TCL2), focused on beyond visual line-of-sight operations in sparsely populated areas. Operators flew scenarios with multiple fixed- and rotary-wing drones from Reno-Stead Airport near Reno, Nevada, exercising the ability of the UTM software platform to safely separate drones interacting with the system and each other via common data-exchange protocols. The platform ingested real-time aircraft tracking and both real and simulated weather data, alerted operators to potential conflicts with other drones and manned aircraft and warned them of a drone’s nonconformance with its flight plan. For the first time, the system demonstrated the capability to dynamically re-route flights when drone operators sought to amend their flight plans to adapt to changing airspace conditions or mission requirements.

TCL3, scheduled for January 2018, will test technologies for safely separating “cooperative” unmanned aircraft—those that have transponders to signal their position—and “non-cooperative” drones that do not, over moderately populated areas. TCL4 will test the UTM construct for higher-density urban areas. Ultimately, NASA envisions two types of UTM systems: a portable system that would move between geographical locations to support “precision agriculture,” disaster relief and other missions for drones; and a “persistent” system that would support low-altitude drone operations in a fixed geographical area.

New York State of Mind

NASA hosted a first UTM conference at Moffett Field, California, the site of Ames Research Center, in July 2015; the second annual conference took place in November in Syracuse, New York. Co-located at Syracuse Airport is Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, where the 174th Attack Wing operates the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper. Some 50 miles to the east, Griffiss International Airport in Rome is home to an FAA-designated UAS test site managed by the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance.

With those and other resources at its disposal, the central New York region is positioning itself as an unmanned aircraft industry hub. In December 2015, the state awarded the region $500 million in economic development funding, half of which was earmarked for infrastructure spending on the UAS industry over five years. Under that program, Syracuse University is leading the establishment of the National Unmanned Aerial Standardized Performance Testing and Rating facility, described as the “Underwriters Lab for drones” that will set standards for UAS airworthiness certification.

At the UTM conference, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that New York will invest $30 million of the funding to develop an instrumented UAS flight corridor between the Syracuse and Rome airports using NASA-developed air traffic management concepts.

“They’re projecting that this could be a trillion-dollar industry,” Cuomo later told reporters. “The county executive of central New York has been very aggressive about developing a platform and a strategy to bring that industry here. This unmanned aerial industry is going to develop somewhere, and the county executive’s point is it should develop here in central New York, and we will create the conditions to bring it here.”

UTM conference speakers were similarly enthusiastic about the industry’s prospects and their ability to manage the anticipated growth in disparate drone traffic through common software protocols and Internet-enabled “cloud” data sharing. Jonathan Evans, CEO of Portland, Oregon-based Skyward, which provides an Internet-based mapping and flight-planning tool for drones, said he is a “passionate evangelical for the notion of software-defined airspace, network-managed robots and airspace.” This is the “Jetsons vision” the American public has long imagined, he added. “We can show that with the simple tech of today—with [application programming interface] driven architectures and cloud-based databases—we can say who is flying what in space, where and when. We can exchange that information.”

For now, planners envision the UTM construct taking shape in Class G uncontrolled airspace below 500 feet agl—keeping drone traffic below the FAA’s prescribed minimum safe altitude for manned general aviation aircraft in other than congested areas.

“The FAA provides services in the controlled airspace; in uncontrolled airspace the FAA typically doesn’t provide services,” Kopardekar explained. “When you have that kind of a division, it lends nicely to innovation because now we can focus on pieces of airspace that are uncontrolled, where the FAA or any air navigation service provider does not provide services, which provides an opportunity for all of us to innovate much faster and look for new opportunities in terms of technical and operational capabilities as well as business models.

“UTM resides right now under the ‘service not provided’ airspace category, but it has hooks to go into [other airspace]—the vehicles can go back and forth between the airspace where the services are provided and where they’re not provided,” he added.

Kopardekar acknowledged that the system architecture “sounds simple on paper, but has huge implications” for the roles and responsibilities of the FAA and what system architects call UAS service suppliers—organizations other than the FAA that would provide drone authentication, flight planning and tracking services in a federated UTM network. Relieved of those responsibilities, the FAA will retain its role as the overarching regulator.

Offering a taste of the companies interested in being UAS service suppliers, telecommunications giant AT&T announced a formal collaboration with NASA at the UTM conference, saying it brings expertise in wireless networking, extracting information from devices and machines through the “Internet of Things,” cloud services, identity management and cybersecurity. “Working with NASA and others, we are designing the management system for a new frontier in aviation,” Mike Leff, vice president with AT&T Global Public Sector Solutions, said. “This research can help support the commercial and private use of drones nationwide.”

While the UTM concept emerged as a technical challenge at the NASA Ames center in California’s Silicon Valley, Congress formally directed the FAA to be involved in the FAA Extension, Safety and Security Act of 2016, which became law on July 15. The reauthorization legislation calls on the FAA Administrator, in coordination with NASA’s Administrator, to produce a research plan for UTM development and deployment. “The research plan shall include an assessment of the interoperability of a UTM system with existing and potential future air traffic management systems and processes,” the act instructs. The act also directs the FAA and other parties to establish a UTM system pilot program.

The FAA took a step toward UTM oversight with the release of a “UAS Notification and Authorization” request for information (RFI) to industry last August, later amended. Its objectives in issuing the RFI were to develop “a practical approach to information and data sharing” between the FAA and private entities involved in small UAS (sUAS) operations, and to organize demonstrations of data-sharing techniques for notification and authorization of drones plying the airspace.

“Information sharing readily lends itself to automated technologies since there are many ways information may be shared and exchanged, using web-based and other technologies,” the solicitation states. “However, currently there are no conventions or standards for exchanging information between FAA and external entities about sUAS operations using automated techniques and standards.”