NASA Advances Drone Traffic Management System

Major government agencies and brands continue to pursue integrating Unmanned Aircraft Systems into national airspace at scale with new tests completed in the U.S.

NASA recently moved into the second phase of its program to develop a Universal Traffic Management (UTM) system for drones.

The first stage of the program focused on flight path monitoring, flight planning, navigation, surveillance and safe tracking. Tests were conducted with the unmanned drone within the sight of operators.

NASA partnered with AT&T for the first stage of the program last year, as the AI & IoT Daily reported at the time (AT&T, NASA Team To Create Traffic Management For Drones).

During the second phase, which just concluded near FAA test sites in six states, the focus was to operate drones beyond visual line of sight. The UAS were monitored and controlled remotely from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.

The idea of the UTM platform is to centralize and automate certain aspects of unmanned flights. For example, a drone’s scheduled flight plan is entered into the system, which then clears or denies the flight based on other flights and variables. The system can also notify the operator of potential constraints on the flight, according to NASA.

“Industry will have a major role to play in the implementation, operation and maintenance of UTM systems in U.S. airspace and this campaign of test activities will provide a glimpse into how they will play these roles by connecting their system prototypes and components with NASA’s UTM research platform,” stated Arwa Aweiss, coordinator of the second phase of NASA’s program.

Drones were configured to match certain use cases, including drone deliveries, video surveillance, search and rescue missions and farmland and infrastructure inspection.

One of the drone delivery tests was conducted by the Project Wing team within Alphabet’s X company at the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership test site.

In that part of the test, an X operator used three UAS to deliver packages while two cellular-connected drones from Intel and a prosumer drone from DJI autonomously carried out search and rescue missions in the same area.

“Operators have historically had to steer their aircraft away from obstacles manually; instead, we demonstrated that our UTM platform can automatically manage the flight paths of all these different types of UAS, planning new, clear routes for each aircraft if and when conflicts arise,” James Burgess, co-lead of Project Wing, wrote in a blog post about the test. “In the coming months, we’ll continue to refine our UTM platform’s ability to support more simultaneous flights and navigate environments of greater complexity.”

NASA plans to move toward real-world scenarios with two more phases over the next year, which would add specific tasks for the drones to accomplish and also begin flying over increasingly populated areas

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the FAA also recently began researching drone detection systems at Dallas Fort Worth airport in Texas.

The FAA plans to use its findings to develop a set of minimum performance standards for drone detection systems implemented at U.S. airports. This research has been ongoing for more than a year. Other airports involved in the research include JFK in New York, ACY in Atlantic City and DEN in Denver, among others.



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