Exploring the Collaboration Between NASA, the FAA and Drone Industry to Develop a Cloud-Based UTM System

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are partnering with private companies to develop a cloud-based traffic management system that could handle unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) operating in the national airspace, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently announced. The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management platform enables drone users to coordinate airspace use through a UAS Service Supplier provided they have been registered with the FAA.

The proposed UTM system enables Low Altitude Authorization Notification Capability (LAANC) so that drone operators can receive real-time authorization to fly in controlled airspace. Additionally, the system will be able to handle drone coordination via mobile and other electronic devices connected to the Internet so that they can communicate. Doing will enable capabilities related to dynamic geo-fences, emergency TFRs or virtual barriers as the in-flight UAV will be able to provide real-time information to the operator.

The proposed system will allow data providers to leverage automated UTM communication and to share information such as weather and terrain data, NOTAMS, TFR’s, and operational plans addressing potential flight conflicts. DHS’ science and technology directorate is speaking with entities involved in the development of related systems such as MIT’s Urban Counter-UAS Operational Prototype which will be used to detect unauthorized drones in the national airspace.

The UTM infrastructure project was first conceptualized by NASA in 2015 when Parimal Kopardekar, manager of NASA’s Safe Autonomous Systems Operations project, talked about the genesis of the problem and the potential partnerships that would bring solutions to the table. Known throughout the industry as “PK”, he has sought to define and enable a UTM system for drones in a powerful manner.

“The sky could become increasingly crowded as personal and commercial uses of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly called drones, become more popular,” Kopardekar said.

With the avalanche of new and highly beneficial civilian applications for UAVs such as goods’ delivery, infrastructure inspection, search and rescue, and agricultural monitoring readily apparent, the pressure on the regulator is growing. Thankfully, partnering with interested industry parties has proven to be a viable solution for all stakeholders. Last year, NASA’s Ames Research Center in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley released an open a call to invite government, industry and academic partners to collaborate with NASA to conduct and identify research needs and to accelerate the development of such a system.

Around that same time, several major private technology firms, such as Amazon and Google, announced plans to launch their own UAS applications and delivery giants such as DHL, FedEx and UPS followed suit with their own distribution initiatives. However, before these and any other commercial efforts can take to the sky, a safe UTM system must be deployed in full coordination with existing Air Traffic Control (ATC) to ensure the new flying unmanned aircraft don’t collide into buildings, airplanes or one another.

The proposed UTM system leverages the valuable byproducts of NASA’s aeronautics research, its decades of experience and vast contributions to air traffic management. By collaborating with committed government agencies such as the FAA, private industry and academic partners, NASA is benefitting from commercial sector investment in UAS technology. Doing so has enabled the agency to lead research and development into a cloud-based 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,” says Kopardekar.

While NASA and the UAV industry face steep challenges, a number of companies are already addressing some of these issues. One collaborator has seen the development of a system that automatically checks 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. However, these technologies must meet federal requirements to begin operations as a testbed for unmanned aircraft traffic management.

NASA values all of the collaborators who joined the plan to build a low altitude traffic management system for unmanned aircraft systems. To date, more than 100 organizations, large and small, are contributing their expertise. Still, there are numerous research needs that have not been met. NASA continues to look for additional collaborators to address those needs. For a comprehensive list of open solicitations visit https://www.nasa.gov/aeroresearch/solicitations

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to integrating UAVs into the national airspace beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) is related to 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,” says Kopardekar. “You want everyone to feel free to contribute ideas to a project as a means of increasing engagement.”

In the meantime, NASA has already signed contracts with three industry partners in a bid to demonstrate progress in the use and eventual certification of systems critical to the safe operation of UAVs in the National Airspace System (NAS). The demonstration is known as the Systems Integration and Operationalization – SIO – (https://www.nasa.gov/aeroresearch/programs/iasp/uas/description) activity and will take the form of a number of flight tests during the summer of 2020 using various-sized unmanned aircraft built by each of the three companies.

“These are not the smaller drones much of the public is used to hearing about,” said Robert Sakahara, NASA’s project manager for the UAS Integration in the NAS Project. “These are larger UAS that will fly above 500 feet to simulate missions such as pipeline inspections or cargo delivery to off-shore oil platforms.”

The companies now under contract include Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc., of Fort Worth, Texas; General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., of Poway, California; and PAE ISR, LLC of Sterling, Virginia. NASA and these industry partners will work together to tackle key challenges that prevent routine commercial UAV operations today, including development, integration, and certification of unmanned aircraft and its onboard systems.

“We’re using our expertise within these areas to help our partners move toward certification,” Sakahara said.

The two key systems that are the focus of the demonstration that will hopefully assist the Federal Aviation Administration toward setting standards for certification include Detect and Avoid (DAA) and Command and Control (C2).  DAA involves employing sensors of some type (such as radar or cameras) to sense if the aircraft is flying too close to an object (such as a tall building or another aircraft) and then takes steps to fly away from the potential danger. C2 involves technology that ensures the unmanned aircraft remains in constant, secure contact via radio with ground-based pilots and air traffic control – but also knows what to do on its own to stay safe in case that signal is lost.

With the concerted efforts of all these players working together to develop and deploy a safe UTM system that would work in perfect synchronicity with existing ATC and in constant communication via existing wireless networks, the future looks especially bright for the full integration of manned and unmanned vehicles over controlled airspace. A UTM system that can ensure the safety and security for autonomous drone operations will open up brand new markets and opportunities all across the United States.

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About the Author

Juan received a degree in Geodesy and a master in digital photogrammetry from Universidad Central de Venezuela and a MBA in international Finance from Florida International University. He has over 750 hours of experience in photogrammetry navigation and camera operation in aircraft as varied as WWII B-25, Cessna 310, Lear Jet 25C and Piper Aztec. Juan holds a Commercial, Multi-engine Pilot certificate. Juan has been selling mapping UAV’s in Latin America for four years and is a frequent guest speaker in events where the safety of flying UAV’s and the fact that unmanned and manned aircraft inevitably will share the same airspace, is a relevant topic. He is the CEO of Juan B Plaza Consulting, a services’ firm specializing in UAV and general aviation issues.

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