“The sky could become increasingly crowded as personal and commercial uses of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) become more popular,” said Parimal Kopardekar, manager of NASA’s Safe Autonomous Systems Operations project, as innovators constantly conceive new beneficial civilian applications for these aircraft, including goods delivery, infrastructure inspection, search and rescue, and agricultural monitoring.

Last year, NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, CA, released an open call to invite government, industry, and academic partners to collaborate with NASA to conduct and identify research needs, and to accelerate the development of a UAS management system. Around the same time, several major technology companies, such as Amazon and Google, announced plans to launch their own UAS applications. However, before these and any other commercial efforts took flight, a safety system had to be in place to make sure the new unmanned aircraft didn’t collide into buildings, airplanes, or each other.

By leveraging the valuable byproducts of NASA’s aeronautics research, and its decades of experience with air traffic management, NASA is helping to define a new era of aviation. Using the power of collaborative innovation to work alongside many committed government, industry, and academic partners, NASA is benefitting from commercial sector investment in UAS technology, enabling the agency to lead research and development into a cloud-based unmanned aircraft traffic management (UTM) system.

“NASA wants to create a system that would keep track of and deliver important information to operators of UAS, such as which areas they should avoid, whether any other vehicles are trying to operate in the same airspace, and what the weather will be like in a given area,” said Kopardekar.

The NASA team researched and tested ways to communicate this data to UAS while they’re in flight, such as dynamic geo-fences, or virtual barriers, giving UAS operators the most updated information in real time.

NASA will use UTM as a tool to bring more people together and bridge the gap between commercial innovation and NASA’s air traffic management research. By working with partners who provide their own vehicles, low-altitude radar, radio frequencies, or cellphone towers, NASA will gain access to more technology for UTM applications to demonstrate that unmanned aircraft systems can be safely operated at low altitudes.

The UTM is designed to enable safe, low-altitude (~500 ft. and below) UAS operations that predict and manage congestion, avoid terrain and manmade objects, maintain safe separation and spacing, and allow only authorized operation. (NASA)
While NASA and the UAS industry face steep challenges, a number of companies are already addressing some of these issues. One collaborator has developed systems that automatically check a UAS’s battery life and surrounding terrain, while another is building a database to keep UAS away from private residences. Other companies have launched prototypes for low-altitude tracking and avoidance systems, and are using tools that manage fleet operations related to commercial UAS operations. These technologies must meet federal requirements to begin operations as a testbed for a UTM system.

One of the biggest challenges to integrating UAS into the national airspace beyond line-of-sight is developing a system that enables the aircraft to see and be seen by other aircraft. At low altitude, one solution may exist in cellphone tower technology to track and monitor both commercial and civilian aircraft. NASA is in the initial stages of exploring this concept with telecommunication providers such as Verizon. Any system developed would not require tracking, receiving, or interfering with information from any personal mobile devices.

“While these are only examples of the innovative commercial technologies being developed by companies that are working with NASA, the secret to effective collaboration is individuality,” said Kopardekar. “You want everyone to feel free to contribute ideas to a project as a means of increasing engagement.”

Traffic Management

Late last year, NASA successfully demonstrated rural operations of the UTM concept, integrating operator platforms, vehicle performance, and ground infrastructure. The next steps involve further validation through FAA test sites.

“UTM is designed to enable safe, low-altitude civilian UAS operations by providing pilots information needed to maintain separation from other aircraft by reserving areas for specific routes, with consideration of restricted airspace and adverse weather conditions,” explained Kopardekar.