The Future of Air Traffic Management: Safely Sharing the Skies with Drones

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NASA’s UTM project conducts research to make it possible for sUAS to safely access low-altitude airspace beyond visual line of sight. The proposed UTM system currently under development and testing by NASA, in collaboration with many industry participants, is an excellent example of such a potential workflow infrastructure. The design philosophy incorporates lessons learned from air traffic management in manned aviation, and proposes the development of a long list of potentially valuable services – including airspace design, corridors, dynamic geofencing, severe weather and wind avoidance, congestion management, terrain avoidance, route planning and re-routing, separation management, sequencing and spacing, and contingency management.

Ultimately, there is an underlying structure to uncontrolled airspace that is relevant to sUAS operators in particular, and the UTM concept offers a potential pathway to manage that structure without unduly burdening existing ATC operations. Additionally, it adopts the perspective that in an end-state, human operators will not be required to monitor every vehicle continuously, reserving human intervention for top level tasks. And as the industry evaluates the long-term commercial interest in sUAS, larger operators will create a need for fleet management tools and procedures, as drone pilots may be managing more than one sUAS simultaneously.

A UTM system like this is ultimately intended to satisfy the requirements of maintaining vehicle separation and executing collision avoidance, but an outstanding question is how to integrate the UTM system with ATC in such a way that disruptions to existing ATC procedures are minimized. At a highlevel, one potential vision is that UTM becomes a “system within a system,” independently managing those parts of the sUAS traffic that are located outside a given tower’s active control region. UTM, andany operators using it, would then interface with ATC using an appropriate infrastructure that allows for ATC to dynamically alter airspace restrictions, issue alerts, directly communicate with the sUAS operator as necessary, retrieve historical data, or perform any other required operations.

In order for sUAS to maintain a dynamic capability to operate outside of today’s structured routing and positive control, it requires an innovative means for the operators to provide information for ATC decision-making. This system within a system allows for maximum flexibility while providing a means of reliable information for ATC awareness and decision making.

Evolving Technologies

Achieving successful integration while providing ATC with adequate information, situational awareness, and contact or recall capability is key to success. These requirements present a formidable challenge, but meeting them in the near-term is achievable due in part to evolving technologies, such as LTE and cloud-based data transmission and analytics services – which are uniquely suited to enabling a safe and scalable UAS-integrated airspace.

GPS data has improved in accuracy and availability, and in parallel, miniaturization of computer electronics has created a corresponding increased demand for mobile GPS services and the infrastructure to support them. And with the increasing availability of LTE and other high-capacity networks, it is now possible to send larger parameter sets from low-altitude traffic to cloud-based processing engines – rapidly and securely – to perform the necessary calculations.

As the number of UAS grows, so will the quantity of operational data that is fed back to airspace management systems. In addition to efficiently performing low-latency calculations to support real-time operations, this data can aid in decision-making for system level concerns: quality metrics, statistical examination of collective behavior, large-scale predictions, and more sophisticated alerting. The current interest in novel predictive analytics and data science strategies has created a host of tools and algorithms to support these applications.


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