FAA outlines emerging airspace drone strategy

Two notional scenarios NASA is exploring to integrate drones into US airspace include both a portable model that would move between geographical areas and a persistent model that would provide continuous coverage for a specific area.

NASA is the US Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) lead partner in UTM development and together, the two organisations have developed a Research Transition Team (RTT) which is split into four subgroup areas of research: concepts, data, sense and avoid (SAA), and communications/navigation.

NASA said that neither the portable or persistent solutions would require human monitoring of every vehicle. Instead, operators would use data to make inputs only when initiating, continuing, or terminating a drone flight. Since drone pilots would be inherently more reliant on a robust data exchange to authenticate themselves and declare their intentions, that same data can be used to better inform the general aviation (GA) pilot community about precisely where and how drones will be operating.

“This type of system can provide finer precision of expected [drone] operations,” reports Jarrett Larrow, an aerospace engineer with the FAA’s flight technologies and procedures division and co-coordinator of sense and avoid and communications/navigation subgroups for the FAA. “I can envision where there is more than just a generic charting symbol or a blanket 30-mile NOTAM warning GA pilots about drone activity. Instead, there could be a one-mile corridor during a specific time frame identifying expected drone traffic, along with the notional track.”

According to Larrow who is interviewed in the latest FAA Safety Briefing, drone operators would have to use this additional information and their capability to share it since it could help to expedite their safe integration into the national airspace system. GA pilots would also need to get involved early and make sure they have the capabilities to know where these operations are occurring.

Last August, US aviation authorities established a comprehensive rule to allow for the commercial use of small drones (14 CFR part 107) which is helping to lay the groundwork for a more inclusive type of system which neither bottlenecks nor burdens industry while ensuring that risks to others are properly mitigated.

NASA said it has already engaged with all six of the FAA’s drone test ranges in Alaska, North Dakota, Nevada, New York, Texas, and Virginia to flight test UTM technology. Most recently, researchers at the Nevada test site flew – and tracked – five drones at the same time beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight from Reno-Stead Airport. Each drone accomplished a separate simulated task, including looking for a lost hiker, covering a sporting event, monitoring wildlife, and surveying environmental hazards.

These types of demonstrations are designed to be fit exactly within the scalable platform model used by the RTT to gradually incorporate complexity into the testing environment. This “build a little, test a little” strategy moves UTM through a spectrum of low risk, low density remote operations, to higher density urban environments that require interaction with manned aircraft and employ more complex beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) techniques.


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