BY ZACC DUKOWITZ
22 February 2019
NASA recently announced that they’ve selected two partners to host the fourth and final phase of its UTM Project, which will test systems to safely and effectively manage drone traffic in urban areas in two U.S. cities.
Image depicting a city sky populated by both manned and unmanned aerial vehicles.
Image credit: NASA Illustration/Lillian Gipson
NASA’s two partners are the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems, located in Las Vegas, NV and the Lone Star UAS Center for Excellence & Innovation, located in Corpus Christi, TX.
This [fourth] phase represents the most complicated demonstration of advanced UAS operating in a demanding urban environment that will have been tested to date.
– Ronald Johnson, UTM Project Manager for NASA
The test flights will take place in and around downtown Reno, Nevada between March and June, and in Corpus Christi during July and August.
ABOUT NASA’S UTM PROJECT
UTM stands for Unmanned Traffic Management, which is a catchall phrase for systems made to manage drone traffic and keep drones and manned aircraft from colliding.
Although private companies like Matternet and AirMap have made headlines for their work in bringing UTMs to market at scale—most notably in Switzerland, where there is now a UTM in place for the entire country’s air traffic—NASA has also been working on its own UTM technology for several years.
The stated goal of the NASA UTM Project is “to develop technologies, roles, responsibilities and procedures for a future airspace management system that safely manages autonomous aircraft operations in populated areas.”
NASA has enlisted a plethora of private and government agency partners to help with this work. In addition to the two partners mentioned above, who will be hosting the fourth phase of their UTM testing, NASA has also partnered with the FAA, as well as 70+ other private companies and government entities (see the full list of NASA’s UTM partners here).
A key part of NASA’s UTM Project has been the testing they’ve conducted of their UTM system, which has taken place in a series of phases (also referred to as different levels of Technical Capabilities).
These tests are a core part of NASA’s initial directive in this research, which was to design, test, and demonstrate a UTM that will allow drones to have full access to low-altitude airspace “not currently managed by the FAA” (i.e., airspace other than that found at airports and in other highly-trafficked/highly managed areas).
FOUR PHASES OF TESTING
NASA’s UTM Project has already undergone three phases of testing over the last several years. In each phase, the level of complexity being tested has grown significantly.
In its fourth and final phase, NASA plans to test their UTM system’s ability to manage drone traffic in an urban area—possibly the most complicated scenario for UTM that could be imagined.
The Four Phases/Levels of Technical Capability
- Technical Capability Level One (TCL1): Focused on field testing rural UAS operations for agriculture, firefighting, and infrastructure monitoring. It enabled UAS operators to file flight plans reserving airspace for their operations and provide situational awareness about other operations planned in the area.
- Technical Capability Level Two (TCL2): Demonstrated UAS applications that operate beyond visual line of sight of the operator in sparsely populated areas. Researchers tested technologies that allowed dynamic adjustments to availability of airspace and contingency management.
- Technical Capability Level Three (TCL3): Included cooperative and uncooperative UAS tracking capabilities to ensure the collective safety of manned and unmanned operations over moderately populated areas.
- Technical Capability Level Four (TCL4): Will leverage TCL3 results and focus on UAS operations in higher-density urban areas for tasks such as news gathering and package delivery. It will also test technologies that could be used to manage large-scale contingencies.
Note: The above text has been adapted from TCL descriptions that appear on NASA’s website.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR NASA’S UTM PROJECT?
Once the fourth and final phase of testing is done NASA will presumably begin looking at ways to enable the widespread use of their UTM technology, with the ultimate goal of making the national airspace safer.
Results of [UTM] research in the form of airspace integration requirements are expected to be transferred from NASA to the FAA in 2019 for their further testing.
But the path from research and testing to implementation is not a clear one right now. While it’s exciting that NASA is closing in on the final phase of their UTM Project, there doesn’t seem to be much information available about how they plan to bridge the gap from technological development to actual use.
If some form of UTM is launched nationwide in the U.S. it could go a long way toward enabling those types of commercial drone operations that require BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) flights, including drone deliveries and inspections of assets in remote or hard-to-reach locations.
Most likely UTM, if and when it does arrive here, won’t be rolled out in organized batches that eventually cover the entire U.S.—as the LAANC updates did—but will arrive piecemeal, with some areas of the U.S. having certain UAS management capabilities long before other areas do, based on need and the influence private companies.
When do you think we’ll see UTM implemented throughout the U.S., as it already is in Switzerland? And how important is UTM to the future of the drone industry as a whole? Share your thoughts and opinions in this thread on the UAV Coach community forum.