NASA successfully executed TCL 3 flight tests for the UTM program last week. That’s a complex sentence due to the acronyms: simplified, NASA’s testing of drone traffic management systems has progressed to the next level. Here’s what that really means for drone operators.
Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) is taking on increasing importance as many commercial drone applications wait for drone regulations to catch up before they can move forward. Applications like long-range railway inspections, drone delivery of medical equipment and commercial products, and anything in populated areas cannot be widely implemented until the question of drone safety around aircraft of all types can be settled. Pilots need to be able to see everything that’s in the air, aircraft need to communicate with one another, critical missions need to be prioritized over the routine and recreational. Regulations need to be written, communicated, and enforced. Aircraft need to be constructed for safety and efficient operation.
It’s a complex problem. UTM is not a piece of software or one technology solution, but a framework of concepts. And just as it has for the last 59 years, NASA has stepped up to the challenge of figuring out what happens in space. They’ve been working on UTM for several years now, bringing in partners to work on various parts of the puzzle; and they’ve progressed to the stage of putting ideas to the test. The idea is that NASA will execute 4 “Technology Capability Levels (TCL)” and then pass the project off to the FAA to work on regulations and execution. Those TCLs, begun with TCL1 in 2015 and 2016, get increasingly complex. Described by NASA, they are:
UTM TCL1 concluded the initial NASA field test in August 2015 and underwent additional testing at six FAA sites in April 2016. Technologies in this activity addressed operations for agriculture, firefighting and infrastructure monitoring, with a focus on geofencing, altitude “rules of the road” and scheduling of vehicle trajectories.
UTM TCL2 testing started in October 2016, leveraged TCL1 results and focused on beyond visual line-of-sight operations in sparsely populated areas. Researchers evaluated technologies that allowed flight path conformance monitoring, dynamic adjustments to UAS operation plans and contingency management. This forms the basis for the upcoming flights at the six FAA UAS Test Sites.
UTM TCL3, scheduled for March 2018, will leverage TCL2 and the May 2017 NASA National Campaign results and focus on testing technologies that maintain safe spacing between cooperative (responsive) and non-cooperative (non-responsive) UAS over moderately populated areas.
UTM TCL4, with dates to be determined, 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.
In the Nevada desert at the Nevada FAA UAS test site managed by the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems (NIAS) on behalf of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development this week, TCL 3 got underway.
The idea is to test a variety of aircraft – provided by research institutions and industry contributors – in a role playing scenario that demonstrates how drones flown beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and flying near each other (some directly over each other – in industry speak that’s “conducting altitude stratified operations”) can coexist safely. Project partners working with NASA have developed UAS Service Supplier (USS) systems, ground control system interfaces, airborne and ground-based sensors, and networking solutions. NASA provides the prototype platform Flight Information Management Systems (FIMS) which coordinates it all. And everyone watches as the drone operations, working through a medical emergency role playing scenario, successfully manage to identify other aircraft and “de-conflict” in real-time – avoiding collisions and completing their missions.
It’s exciting, and for participants who have been involved from the start, exhilarating. There are many partners involved. Big names like Amazon and Google have played roles, practicing for their own future delivery operations. Others have provided facilities and some of the complex software solutions required to make it all work. DRONELIFE talked to Amit Ganjoo of ANRA Technologies, one of the key players in the project, about TCL 3 and the state of UTM.
ANRA’s UAS Service Supplier (USS) platform was the central core component of managing all these operations. The ANRA USS platform integrated the UAS ground control system interfaces to locally manage operations, as well as ground-based sensors to provide data for situational awareness and de-confliction to the operators. The ANRA USS platform managed multiple drones including ones from Drone America as well as iLOT (Polish Institute of Aviation.) Significant for drone operators and the industry, unlike large commercial partners who will be developing proprietary systems for their own large fleets, ANRA’s solutions are available to all commercial operators and drone programs.
The ANRA Technologies USS platform will be used at multiple FAA test sites during this TCL3 testing. Over the next few weeks, ANRA is going to be participating at Virginia’s FAA test site and will be testing out different scenarios/sensor technologies as well as inter USS communications to capture data for NASA and FAA to help further the UTM effort. “We’re so happy to be a part of this event with NASA, the FAA, and NIAS as it took us closer to a real UTM solution for safe integration of drones into the national airspace,” said Amit Ganjoo, CEO. “This was the first real world attempt where multiple USS platforms were integrated to manage and de-conflict UAS operations simultaneously in the same region. Achieving this is a significant accomplishment and we are excited to have played a central role in this exercise along with partners like GE and others.”
What does this mean for drone operators and all of the rest of us? TCL 3 is a major milestone – and it’s happening sooner than expected. The transition to the FAA has been pushed up too, with the team on hand and actively participating already. Parts of the UTM system are already available and being implemented. Pressure is building in the U.S. and around the globe to get a UTM framework in place and finally integrate drones fully into the airspace.
It won’t happen all at once, and it won’t happen tomorrow, or even this year. But every small step forward proving the safety and viability of commercial drones is a giant step for the drone industry.
Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.