NASA, UAS sites complete first phase of traffic management tests

By Luke Geiver | April 28, 2016

NASA has made unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) history with the help of all six U.S. Federal Aviation Administration UAS test sites. Working in conjunction with each test site, NASA has performed a flight and operations test of its unmanned traffic management system designed to incorporate UAS safely into the national airspace.

During a single-day, three-hour test, 24 small unmanned aircraft vehicles flew at each test site in Alaska, New York, North Dakota, Texas, Virginia and Nevada. UAS operators interacted with NASA’s UTM software platform based in California, entered flight plans and planned operations for various aircraft and software, according to NASA. The UTM system checked for conflicts, approved or rejected the flight plans and notified users of constraints, NASA also said following the test. “We didn’t have any testing problems today,” Parimal Kopardekar, manager of NASA’s Safe Autonomous Systems Operations project and lead of NASA’s UTM efforts said.

The test marked the first time NASA had performed a live test of its system on a nationwide scale. The procedure was only the first step for NASA and its plan to create the full framework of a UTM system capable of serving all size UAVs in multiple altitude ranges.

Thomas Prevot, a senior research engineer at NASA that is working on the UTM efforts, said the team is trying to build the right infrastructure while balancing multiple needs, including national and regional security, safe airspace integration and scalable operations for economic growth. Building the network includes managing a vast amount of incoming information, sending out notifications to operators and interfacing with UTM managers. There also needs of transparency with operators, Prevot said, indicating that anonymous flying will not help the success of the system. UAV platform operations can potentially be approved based on performance of a platform, Prevot said, adding that some areas—national monuments, disaster zones, or other sensitive areas—will have to be placed under dynamic or static geofencing that would restrict UAV flights through the fenced areas.

Flight congestion management could be added to the UTM system only as needed. Airspace separation management may also be created, he said. Such an addition could be used to allow precision agricultural specialists or farmers to reserve airspace above their fields during particular time periods to avoid any flight complications. Railroads looking to survey track could also benefit from the use of airspace separation management built into the NASA UTM platform to avoid any similar flight conflicts during inspections.

The basics of the NASA UTM system follow five main steps. First, the UAV operator submits operation plans including waypoints along the intended flight path, vehicle specifics and other pertinent information. Second, the UTM checks the operational plan against its predetermined flight standards. Third, the UTM checks static constraints along the flight path—geofenced structures or restricted airspace. Fourth, the UTM system checks dynamic constraints. And, finally, the UTM checks to verify there is flight contingency management or planning options should a mid-air flight need to be altered.

“It’s a lot of systems talking to systems,” Prevot said.

With the recent flight test completed, the NASA UTM team plans to move towards testing its system with beyond visual line of flight operations. In October, NASA intends to run tests on BVLOS operations. The tests will track UAVs flying in low density areas and look to establish what Prevot called “rules of the road.”

By 2018, the system could be tested for BVLOS operations in moderately populated areas, interact with manned aircraft and test limited package delivery.