Last year, a number of major technology companies, such as Amazon and Google, announced drone projects. Before any commercial efforts can begin, we need to implement a safety system to guarantee flying unmanned aircraft don’t collide into buildings, airplanes or one another. Who will build this safety system? The FAA immediately come to mind, but what might surprise you is that the initiative is being driven by NASA.
“The sky could become increasingly crowded as personal and commercial uses of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly called drones, become more popular.” That’s the assessment of Parimal Kopardekar, manager of NASA’s Safe Autonomous Systems Operations project, as innovators constantly conceive new beneficial civilian applications for these aircraft, including goods delivery, infrastructure inspection, search and rescue, and agricultural monitoring.
To address the growth of this quickly evolving technology, NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recognize that a UAS traffic management (UTM) system for low-altitude airspace is needed.
This new safety system will be very complex, especially if it is to support things like Amazon’s drone delivery plan. That’s why NASA’s Ames Research Center got involved. They invited government, industry and academic partners to work in collaboration with NASA “to conduct and identify research needs and to accelerate the development of such a system.”
By leveraging the valuable byproducts of NASA’s aeronautics research, its decades of experience with air traffic management, and the body of knowledge concerning the convergence of commercial innovations with NASA ideas and concepts, NASA is helping to define a new era of aviation. Using the power of collaborative innovation to work alongside many committed government, industry and academic partners, NASA is benefitting from commercial sector investment in UAS technology, enabling 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.
The NASA team is researching and testing ways to communicate this data to UAS while they’re in flight, such as dynamic geo-fences, or virtual barriers, giving UAS operators the most updated information in real-time.
There is hope that the UTM will encourage everyone to contribute ideas and research, creating a combination of commercial innovation and NASA’s own air traffic management research. With so many rotorcraft variations, including DIY drones, it becomes a gargantuan task to survey everything. This collaborative strategy lets partners provide their own vehicles, low altitude radar, radio frequencies, or cellphone towers and NASA gains access to more technology.
Creating a safe air space for traditional aircraft and rotorcraft has a number of steep challenges, but collaborators are already working to address them.
One collaborator has developed systems that automatically check 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. These technologies must meet federal requirements to begin operations as a test bed for an unmanned aircraft traffic management.
To date, over 100 organizations, both large and small, are contributing to this worthwhile cause. If you feel like you or your organization can contribute, you may want to check out the upcoming NASA UTM 2015: The Next Era of Aviation conference or you can contact [email protected].
For more reading about UTM and the problems it attempts to solve, NASA provides a “NASA UTM Fact Sheet.”