This week, representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration, NASA, and companies across the drone industry met at Virginia Tech to work on developing standards for unmanned aircraft.

They were on campus for a meeting of the “F38” committee of ASTM International, an organization that works with volunteer technical specialists all over the world to develop consensus standards that support public health, safety, and consumer confidence.

More than 12,000 ASTM standards regulate the safety and performance of everything from work boots to child-resistant packaging to the epoxy-coated steel bars that reinforce concrete. Committee F38 is responsible for standards related to the design, performance, and safety of unmanned aircraft systems; this was the second year in a row it has met at Virginia Tech.

“The need for technical standards for unmanned systems, on a whole variety of topics, is greater than it’s ever been,” said Mark Blanks, the director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership and chair of F38’s subcommittee on unmanned aircraft flight operations.

“Sometimes figuring out what those standards should be and how they can work together is half the battle,” Blanks said. “The conversations that unfolded this week helped solidify individual standards, but they also gave us a better sense of the whole ecosystem. That’s instrumental in guiding the work the committee does after the meeting is over.”

Drones are being tapped for everything from delivering food and surveying real estate to airlifting defibrillators to accident scenes and inspecting powerlines. But for all that to be feasible in practice, diverse aircraft performing a variety of tasks will have to interact smoothly with human beings and with each other. That presents a whole set of formidable challenges to solve simultaneously, a Rubik’s cube of engineering and regulation.

In that morass, industry standards function as a kind of common language.

“When you’re introducing new technology in a field as heavily regulated as aviation is, industry standards are the fastest way forward for determining how systems should be designed, built, and maintained,” Blanks said.

For example, one of the meeting’s major topics was remote identification, technology that would allow law enforcement and the public to access certain information about drones flying in their immediate vicinity. Remote ID is considered a linchpin of drone integration for its ability to enhance safety and security and bolster public trust.

But remote ID won’t be practical unless it works in a variety of circumstances. Industry standards will help make that possible, ensuring that different aircraft and different users can all interact with the software consistently.

Standards also help mitigate the risks inherent in any new technology.

Commercial drone operations are currently governed by federal regulations, which include provisions limiting their altitude and prohibiting flights over people and beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight without a special waiver, restrictions that have largely segregated commercial drone traffic from other aircraft and from human beings.

But drone technology is advancing and demand is rising, pushing operations beyond that narrow envelope.

“As we start to operate in an unsegregated manner, we have to ensure that the systems won’t fail — or that they’ll fail in a safe way,” Blanks said. “You need a proven benchmark to measure new technology against. Standards provide that.”  

The meeting’s ambitious agenda focused on keystone technical and regulatory issues at the center of drone integration, including unmanned traffic management and detect-and-avoid technology. Blanks led a strategy discussion on developing standards for flights beyond the operator’s visual line of sight — operations that are indispensable for most viable commercial applications but come with their own suite of interconnected technical and regulatory challenges. 

Reaching consensus on topics like these is nontrivial; final standards can take years to develop. ASTM meetings, where technical experts come together to work through the thorniest problems face-to-face, move the process forward.

“These are challenging problems, and it helps to have everyone in the same room,” Blanks said.

Amid the three days of discussion, demos by companies, including DJI, Wing, and WhiteFox, showcased the technology that Committee F38 is working so assiduously to usher in — including three different remote-ID demonstrations that showed off multiple approaches to the tech’s challenges.   

Virginia Tech, where the university’s Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership operates an FAA-designated test site for unmanned aircraft systems and manages Virginia’s team in the federal UAS Integration Pilot Program, was a natural setting for work so vital to the industry.

The partnership has a track record of assembling the right technical and regulatory elements to pull off precedent-setting operations; in the last few months alone, they’ve been involved in seminal work in package delivery and disaster response.

“The research Virginia Tech is doing can inform almost every standard that’s being developed,” Blanks said.

“We’ve been pushing for so long, and now we’re at a point where we’re going to have to break this barrier to see the industry reach its potential.”