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News & Notes

NASA Conducts Successful Tests of Drone Traffic Management System

Project consists of four levels, with level one complete

April 26, 2016

Tyson LeRoy and Matt Burton of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership flew unmanned aircraft in Blacksburg, VA as part of a national campaign testing an Unmanned Traffic Management research platform developed by NASA.
Virginia Tech Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science
On April 19, NASA and operators from the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) unmanned aerial systems (UAS) test sites successfully tested NASA's drone traffic platform, according to a press release.

To help ensure safe operation of drones in the national airspace, NASA is currently researching air traffic management platforms for low-altitude airspace. The goal was to get at least 16 drones flying safely at once ― at one point during the recent test flight, 22 drones flew simultaneously. This test establishes NASA's UAS traffic management (UTM) platform as a success.

Extensive planning and agreeable weather helped testing run smoothly at the six test sites. The FAA test sites were in Fairbanks, AK; Grand Forks, ND; Rome NY; Blacksburg, VA; Bushwood, MD; and Corpus Christi, TX.

"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 in a press release. "NASA extensively tested Technical Capability Level one and worked very closely with the FAA test sites, and the UTM research platform performed well. This test would not have been possible without the six FAA test sites ― it was a collaborative effort to ensure a successful test."

All test sites chose how to interact with the traffic management platform – from the type of drone to how to implement the UTM software. To add complexity and refine the UTM concept, live flights were mixed with virtual flights.

UTM Technical Capability Level One addressed rural UAS operations within line-of-sight, which will likely be aimed at drone use in agriculture, firefighting, and power line monitoring, according to a press release. The project consists of four complex levels, with level four possibly tackling high-density urban UAS operations. Still in its early stages, NASA plans to turn over research and further testing to the FAA in 2019.

Richard Kelley, chief engineer for the Nevada Advanced Autonomous Systems Innovation Center at University of Nevada, Reno and lead scientist on the Nevada portion of the UTM project, said that his team will be developing several types of software that may integrate with small UAS.

“It’s exciting to be at the forefront of technological development,” Kelley said in a press release. "We enjoyed working with the NASA team to explore UAS air traffic management concepts through this research platform. The software performed wonderfully, providing much-needed data and pointing toward open questions for the research community to address as we work to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System."

As air traffic control is being tackled, see how drone delivery moves closer to becoming a reality.
Featured image: Mike Wolterbeek/University of Nevada, Reno