A team from NASA’s Ames Research Center on October 19 flew four uncrewed aircraft – commonly called drones – at Reno-Stead Airport in Reno, Nevada, in a bid to safely integrate drones into the national airspace.
The “out of sight” tests, led by NASA in coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration and several partners, were the latest waypoint in solving the challenge of drones flying beyond the visual line of sight of their human operators without endangering other aircraft.
They were part of NASA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) traffic management (UTM) research platform, led by Dr. Parimal Kopardekar, manager of NASA’s Safe Autonomous Systems Operations project and senior engineer for Air Transportation Systems at Ames.
During the test, two of the drones each flew beyond their commander’s line of sight. As many as two drones were operated in the same test airspace, separated by altitude and within sight of their operators. The pilots used the NASA-developed UTM research platform to gain information about all the drones’ locations and proximity to other air traffic and hazards. UTM also informed other airspace users of potential hazards and conflicting operations that could affect their plans.
Before multiple drones can fly in the same area, beyond the pilots’ view, procedures need to be in place to safely manage the traffic. Operators must be aware of other aircraft around them, no-fly zones (also known as geo-fenced areas), and man-made and natural hazards, such as severe weather or unanticipated events in the area.
During the October 19 tests, NASA demonstrated UTM’s Technical Capability Level 2 (TCL2) by connecting real drone-tracking systems to the research platform, providing alerts for approaching drones and piloted aircraft (live or simulated), as well as providing information about weather and other hazards. “We are very happy with the test,” said Dr. Kopardekar, at the close of the day. “We have completed all our test goals, in terms of the number of scenarios and data collection toward operations beyond visual line of sight. The test was possible due to a very good collaboration among partners and NASA.”
UTM partners used various unmanned aircraft connected to the research platform to test UAS operations allowing NASA and the FAA to refine and develop the research. Additional observers kept a sharp eye on every vehicle to ensure safe operations even when the drones were out of sight of the operator-in-command.
“The NASA UTM programme is groundbreaking and we are excited to be part of the effort,” said Mark Barker, director of business development at Nevada Institute of Autonomous Systems (NIAS), which is responsible for the FAA-designated Nevada UAS Test Site. “NASA, NIAS and all the Nevada teammates are truly advancing the unmanned systems industry.”
Michael Erickson, president of Aviation Management and Drone Co-Habitation Services, said that “as one of the NASA-UTM TCL2 teammates, we are excited to be included into the NASA trials and helping to expand, through testing, the incremental proliferation of commercial UAS platforms into real-life business applications.”
When three of the drones flew close together, they were within view of their operators. Current FAA regulations require that drone operators are able to see any other aircraft in order to avoid them, which limits many potential applications for drone technology. The UTM demonstration will help regulators and researchers assess the capabilities and procedures that could support operations beyond operators’ visual lines of sight. The operators also used common data exchange protocols — developed jointly by NASA, the FAA and industry — to flag their intended use of the airspace stay aware of any real-time constraints.
Several UTM “Firsts”
- First UTM demonstration of multiple drones flying beyond visual line of sight of the pilot, with paths separated by altitude. This used the UTM research platform for information about potential hazards and conflicting operations.
- First demonstration of prioritizing airspace access for emergency response drones through UTM airspace management combined with notification of other UAS operators to clear the area.
- First demonstration of system detect-and-alert capabilities. Live radar and weather systems provided alerts to UTM operators based on real data measurements. The team also introduced simulated weather events, such as high winds, to obtain operator feedback and further refine the capability.
- Enhanced demonstration of automated alert when aircraft are not conforming to their flight plans. This safety feature warns UAS operators and, in future, FAA systems of these hazards, such as a drone flying away from its planned path or loss of connection with an operator.
- First demonstration of dynamic re-routing capability that allows an unmanned, airborne vehicle to request flight plan changes. This function allows operators to update their missions in response to either changing airspace conditions or new mission objectives.
Previous flight tests by engineers from NASA’s Ames Research Center located in California’s Silicon Valley, have expanded development and evaluated requirements needed to make low-altitude drone operations safe and efficient. In April 2016, NASA and operators from several FAA drone test sites across the country flew 22 uncrewed aircraft simultaneously, the first and largest demonstration of its kind, to assess rural operations of NASA’s UTM research platform. In November 2015, NASA’s UTM team field-tested rural UAS operations with drones operating in separated flight areas that pilots reserved using the UTM research platform.
With the most recent tests complete, NASA now will offer the capabilities to all FAA test sites for further validation and assessment. UTM’s Technical Capability Level Three testing is planned for January 2018 and will involve evaluating tracking procedures for managing cooperative and uncooperative drones to ensure collective safety of manned and unmanned operations over moderately populated areas. Technical Capability Level Four, planned for 2019, will involve higher-density urban areas for autonomous vehicles used for newsgathering and package delivery, and will offer large-scale contingency mitigation.
Collaborators for the October tests included: Aerovironment, Inc., Monrovia, California; Alaska Center of UAS Integration, Fairbanks, Alaska; Drone Co-Habitation Services, Wilmington, Delaware; Gryphon Sensors, Syracuse, New York; Lone Star UAS Center, Corpus Christi, Texas; Modern Technology Solutions Inc., Alexandria, Virginia; Nevada Institute of Autonomous Systems, Reno, Nevada; Precision Hawk, Raleigh, North Carolina; Proxy Technologies, Reston, Virginia; Silent Falcon, Albuquerque, New Mexico; SmartC2, Grand Forks, North Dakota; University of Nevada-Reno, Reno, Nevada, and Unmanned Experts, Denver, Colorado.