As a part of a national campaign to test NASA's unmanned traffic management research platform, UAS operations were conducted at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia during the week of June 5, to test technology that is designed to allow multiple aircraft to safely share the same airspace.
The test flights were designed to “mimic what operators might encounter if widespread commercial UAS flights beyond line of sight become commonplace.” During the test flights, multiple aircraft carried out several different simulated missions simultaneously.
The aircraft communicated with NASA’s central cloud-based platform using different software interfaces, which allowed them to respond to changes in the airspace.
Building on research flights that were flown last year, this round of testing inched closer to a real-world scenario, as it featured greater technical and logistical challenges.
The industry also played a bigger role in these tests, as each test site had a different set of commercial partners to work with. Those partners provided aircraft, software, and other support.
“Using the power of collaborative innovation to work alongside many committed government, industry and academic partners, NASA is fostering commercial sector investment in UAS technology, enabling the agency to lead research and development using a cloud-based Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) research platform,” says NASA’s UTM National Campaign coordinator Arwa Aweiss, through Virginia Tech news
ANRA Technologies, Aviation Systems Engineering Company, Inc., Fortem Technologies, Intel Corporation, and Project Wing, which is a part of Alphabet’s long-term innovation lab X, were all commercial strategic partners of Virginia Tech.
Two different commercial software platforms, one developed by ANRA Technologies, and the other developed by Project Wing, were tested to “evaluate the ability of third-party traffic-management software to interface with NASA’s central research platform.”
During those tests, Project Wing’s UTM platform supported the flights of as many as five UAS flying at the same time, and some of those UAS flew beyond their operator’s visual line of sight (BVLOS), while others flew directly over other aircraft, in “altitude-stratified” flight paths.
James Ryan Burgess, the co-lead of Project Wing, says, “in collaboration with the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, NASA, and our industry partners, Project Wing demonstrated that our unmanned traffic-management platform can manage the complex flight paths of multiple UAS at the same time.”
“We believe this is an important step that paves the way for a future where many operators can fly safely together.”
The effectiveness of separating flight paths by time, in addition to altitude, were also evaluated by the team.
John Coggin, the chief engineer for the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, who managed the test, says, “the idea is that two aircraft are communicating their position and reserving airspaces that appear and disappear as they move through their flight paths.”
“It’s like sitting at an intersection waiting to cross until the car in front of you goes.”
This design “tested the ability of the traffic-management platform to coordinate these flights effectively.” Other key components of traffic management such as real-time response to unexpected changes in the airspace, technology to help aircraft detect and avoid obstacles, and data integration, were also incorporated into the operation as well.
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