We Have the Technology
“There are a lot of moving targets, but our research goal is to have a holistic vision of UTM operations,” says Jarrett Larrow, an aerospace engineer with the FAA’s Flight Technologies and Procedures Division and co-coordinator of the SAA and Comm/Nav subgroups for FAA. With more industry-leaning and operator compliance objectives to sort out, Larrow’s teams are faced with a wide array of challenges, including the familiar “here today, gone tomorrow” lifecycle of many technological breakthroughs.
“Sense and avoid technologies are out there, but they’re evolving every day — getting smaller, better, and more capable,” says Larrow. Even defining what SAA is and should be capable of to support UTM is a concept the team is still wrestling with. Considered one of the linchpins for successful UTM, SAA technology represents the “eyes and ears” of UAS operators in what will likely be a predominantly autonomous system. “We need to be open-minded toward what solutions industry can propose to ensure they don’t hit other aircraft or structures,” says Larrow, hinting at the balance they must strike with not being overly prescriptive with an individual type of SAA technology or performance metric.
Larrow also cites the variability of operators and UAS platforms as another major challenge. “We have to eventually accommodate everything from garage-built models to complex package delivery aircraft, so we need to be sure there’s a good understanding of the required capabilities. We made a good first step with part 107.”
The good news for addressing these and the myriad other concerns is the vast number of partners from industry, government, and academia that are involved with developing an operational UTM. At last check, NASA had 65 partners listed on its website that provide vehicles or other subsystems to test UTM technologies. Among them are some names you might recognize: Amazon, Google, Lockheed Martin, and Uber (see the full list here: https://go.usa.gov/xXxHk).
“It’s this significant involvement with industry that helps set our RTT apart from others,” says Sherri Magyarits, an FAA engineering research psychologist and co-coordinator of the Concept & Use Cases UTM RTT Working Group. “These various partners and stakeholders are helping to define and validate use cases and operational needs, and are participating directly with flight tests and demonstrations.”
Case in point: NASA has already engaged with all six of the FAA’s UAS test ranges in Alaska, North Dakota, Nevada, New York, Texas, and Virginia to flight test UTM technology. Most recently, researchers at the Nevada test site flew — and tracked — five drones at the same time beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight from Reno-Stead Airport. Each drone accomplished a separate simulated task, including looking for a lost hiker, covering a sporting event, monitoring wildlife, and surveying environmental hazards.
These types of demonstrations are directly in line with the scalable platform model used by the RTT to gradually incorporate complexity into the testing environment. This “build a little, test a little” strategy moves UTM through a spectrum of low risk, low density remote operations, to higher density urban environments that require interaction with manned aircraft and employ more complex beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) techniques.
“Tests like these will help build the foundation for managing much greater amounts of drone traffic in the coming years,” said FAA Administrator Huerta at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Huerta further commented that these flight tests are something that “the FAA and industry both have key roles to play in the integration process. Neither of us is going to solve all of the challenges flying solo.”
Considered one of the linchpins for a successful UTM, SAA technology represents the “eyes and ears” of UAS operators in what will likely be a predominantly autonomous system.
Moving forward with a comprehensive UTM plan must also take into consideration security concerns. The FAA is working concurrently with several government agencies and third party technology firms to develop methods of detecting, identifying, and mitigating unauthorized or “rogue” UAS operations in and around airports or other critical infrastructure. Prototype detection systems have been developed and successfully tested at several U.S. airports including Atlantic City, Denver, and JFK. Findings from these tests will help guide future standards for drone detection systems at airports nationwide and potentially feed into the construct of a larger overall UTM system.
This work is part of the FAA’s Pathfinder Program for UAS Detection at Airports and Critical Infrastructure and is also reinforced by the FAA Extension Act of 2016. Rob Pappas, Manager of the Program and Data Management Branch of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office explains that the while some Pathfinder research parallels and supports UTM efforts, much of their work is of a more immediate nature driven by environmental and economic security concerns with illicit UAS use. “There is a real need to accelerate methods that are directly focused on protecting national critical infrastructure and keeping the NAS operating safely and reliably,” says Pappas.
Out of Sight, But Not Out of Safety
So what will UTM ultimately look like? Will there be human intervention, or will it be strictly autonomous? And how will GA be able to stay actively informed of UAS whereabouts? Two notional scenarios NASA is exploring include a portable model that would move between geographical areas, and a persistent model that would provide continuous coverage for a specific area. Neither of these solutions would require human monitoring of every vehicle. Instead, operators would use data to make inputs only when initiating, continuing, or terminating a UAS flight. Since UAS operators would be inherently more reliant on a robust data exchange to authenticate themselves and declare their intentions, that same data can be used to better inform GA about precisely where and how these UAS will be operating.
“This type of system can provide finer precision of expected UAS operations,” says Larrow. “I can envision where there is more than just a generic charting symbol or a blanket 30-mile NOTAM warning GA pilots about UAS activity. Instead, there could be a one-mile corridor during a specific time frame identifying expected UAS traffic, along with the notional track.” According to Larrow, it would behoove UAS operators to use this additional information and their capability to share it since it could help to expedite their safe integration into the NAS. It would also behoove GA pilots to get involved early and make sure they have the capabilities to know where these operations are occurring.