By Clark Perry
There could be 7 million UAS vehicles flying in U.S. airspace by the year 2020, according to the FAA. It’s a staggering number, especially when it comes to safely managing all that air traffic.
To get a sense of what the skies may be like in just a few years, imagine the following scenario: firefighting aircraft are racing to the scene of a wildfire, only to find their air path strewn with municipal UAS vehicles inspecting power lines, hobbyists capturing vacation footage with the latest off-the-shelf drone from Best Buy, and Amazon Prime’s local drone fleet launching to make their daily deliveries.
The FAA recognizes the urgent need for a traffic management system that can monitor and direct all of these UAS with the same accuracy as the nation’s venerated air traffic control system.
NASA has been charged by the FAA to develop methods of monitoring and managing UAS traffic. Partnering with public and private entities, NASA’s UAS Traffic Management (UTM) program just completed the second part of a four-stage research project towards this goal.
“We don’t have a system in place that’s going to keep UAS safely separated from each other,” says Tom Prevot, a NASA Ames Research Center engineer and UTM Program Manager. “And especially if we’re going beyond the line of sight of the operator, we don’t have all the bits and pieces right now in the airspace system.”
Prevot says NASA’s research capabilities have served air traffic management well in the past. “Here at NASA Ames, we’ve built air traffic management prototypes for many years. Even when you’re flying out in the big aircraft, very often behind the scenes there’s original NASA technology that has been transitioned to the FAA,” he says.
The latest operation involved multiple drone traffic management at six FAA test sites across the nation. Each test site flew a series of UAS missions that were monitored in real-time at the NASA Ames’ Airspace Operations Lab.
Once the team assesses the data gathered from this second phase, it will turn to the more complex challenges in the next two levels of the UTM program.
NASA’s Joey Rios, who serves as UTM Technical Lead, says, “we have work on the UAS platforms themselves, we have software development, we have simulation development. We have a lot of human factors work to figure out how to interact with these systems.”
“We want to enable safe operations of these drones because there are just so many really valuable-use cases out there, whether it’s emergency medicine that you’re going to be delivering or infrastructure inspections” adds Prevot.
Among the private partners collaborating on the project are Intel, Google, AirMap, and Amazon Prime.
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