It’s the applications for drones that get the most attention: flashy acrobatics at sporting events, emergency rescues, a heralded revolution in the delivery of consumer products.
But as drone flights from the entertaining to the lifesaving, and all the more quotidian ones in between, become more common, the systems coordinating those missions behind the scenes will become increasingly critical.
A key piece of that technology evaluated in a rigorous series of tests unfolded at Virginia Tech’s Kentland Farm, where the agricultural experiment station doubles as an off-campus research site for drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems or UAS.
The Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership led the tests, which are part of the latest phase of NASA’s multi-year Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management research program, commonly known in the industry as UTM.
The traffic-management system researchers envision would orchestrate unmanned-aircraft flights in advance, tracking and coordinating requests for airspace in order to separate flight paths from each other and execute the highest-priority missions quickly.
“I think that most people recognize what drones offer, such as more efficient delivery of goods and services, but they’re also concerned about noise, privacy, and safety,” said Mark Blanks, the director of the aviation partnership. “Managing drone traffic smoothly is going to be key to maximizing the benefits and avoiding some of the challenges.”
An unmanned traffic management platform will rely heavily on a type of software system commonly known in the industry as UAS service supplier, or USS, platforms. Unlike typical air-traffic control, which is handled centrally by the federal government, these platforms are being developed by private companies. That tends to promote rapid innovation and technical development, but introduces some hurdles when different USS platforms will inevitably need to communicate with each other.
“Balancing the requirements of different aircraft, on different missions, using different software, and doing as much of it as possible automatically, is a complicated equation,” said John Coggin, the chief engineer of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, who directed the test program.
“How do those software platforms talk to each other, and how often should they communicate? What happens if two operators make conflicting requests, or if one of the USS platforms fails? Those are questions that we’re ironing out now,” he explained.
The NASA research program is determining answers to some of those questions, with the help of Federal Aviation Administration-designated test sites like Virginia Tech’s and a slate of strategic corporate partners.
“One of the project’s goals this year was to accelerate the development of UTM components by UAS stakeholders. These flight demonstrations will give companies developing a USS the opportunity to test their platforms and their interaction with other USSs,” said Arwa Aweiss, NASA’s UTM flight test director.
To conduct this round of tests, NASA and Virginia Tech worked with companies which provided aircraft, USS platforms, or other test support, including Project Wing, ANRA Technologies, AirMap, Intel, senseFly, and Aviation Systems Engineering Corporation.
“We’re thrilled to collaborate with this group of strategic partners,” Blanks said. “These are some of the leading companies in the industry, the major players determining what the future of unmanned aircraft will look like. Having their voices at the table when we’re hammering out these research questions means that we can develop genuinely realistic, practical solutions that will work for the technology that’s actually going to be used in the real world.”
During the course of the tests, different aircraft flew missions coordinated by three different USS platforms, in a realistic scenario in which different aircraft and software systems will have to learn to speak each other’s languages. Meanwhile, NASA researchers used their own software to add simulated aircraft to the operation.
The flights built on similar testing conducted last year. In that case, the USS platforms transmitted data to NASA’s central system, which stands in as the regulator — ultimately the FAA — for the duration of the research. This year, the software platforms communicated directly with each other, interfacing with NASA primarily for validation.
“This dramatically reduces the burden of data on the regulator and brings the system closer to something that would be practical for the volume of drone flights we’re anticipating,” Blanks said.
The Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, which runs one of seven FAA-designated test sites for unmanned aircraft systems, is headquartered at the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science.
From our partners
"Project Wing's testing showed that UAS can safely fly together regardless of the UTM provider they use, paving the way for a future where industry-led solutions facilitate the safe operations of UAS in our skies. MAAP's oversight of the Virginia test site allowed us to validate these capabilities in a safe and scaled way."
- James Ryan Burgess
Co-lead of Project Wing
“We are proud to continue our participation in the UTM test trials with NASA, the FAA, Project Wing, AirMap and MAAP as the trials bring together innovative technologies to manage and de-conflict UAS operations in real world simulations. With our highly flexible, rapid prototyping platform, the Intel Aero Ready to Fly Drone, we are providing a key ingredient to advance capabilities (de-confliction, negotiations, prioritizations) being implemented by UTM service suppliers.”
- Anil Nanduri
Vice president of Intel’s New Technology Group and general manager of unmanned aviation systems
“We as an industry have come a long way over the three years of the UTM; it is exciting to be a part of this journey and help shape the future of this industry along with NASA, FAA and other industry partners. Transitioning from totally segregated operations to strategic deconfliction and managing multiple operations in the same airspace across various UTM platforms is a major milestone towards safe UAS integration into national airspace.”
- Amit Ganjoo
ANRA Technologies chief executive officer
“There is a collective responsibility to ensure safety takes absolute priority, especially when joining autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles with the manned aviation world above, and the civilian population below. The test trials led by NASA and Virginia Tech will help ensure this responsibility is met, and that this safe integration is realized. senseFly is proud to be involved in an enterprise that is shaping the future of UAS traffic management.”
- Matt Delano
senseFly field operations manager
"AirMap is proud to work alongside NASA, Virginia Tech, and others to develop the technology to foster a safe and cooperative airspace system. Last week's trials proved that interoperability among UTM providers is possible and a critical component in realizing a high scale drone economy."
- Ben Marcus
AirMap chairman and co-founder