What is UTM? A Conversation with Amit Ganjoo

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Image: NASA

“UTM” is one of those acronyms that has reached the status of annoying – technical enough that not everyone in the drone industry understands what it means, but ubiquitous enough that few articles bother to explain what it is anymore.  We spoke with Amit Ganjoo of ANRA Technologies, one of the leading companies in the UTM space, to clarify the issue.  A recognized expert and frequent speaker on the topic, Amit and his company ANRA Technologies have been heavily involved with NASA on the testing of UTM technologies.

“UTM” stands for UAS Traffic Management.  It’s a topic that is critically important to the drone industry.  Without a reliable system for assuring all stakeholders that manned aircraft and unmanned aircraft will be able to share the skies safely, true “drone integration” into the airspace can’t occur – and commercial applications, like those requiring BVLOS flight, will be limited.   Even though it’s so important, UTM is tough to get a handle on: it is a complex topic that covers a lot of ground.

What is UTM?

While that sounds like a basic question, it’s challenging to answer in a few sentences.  That’s because, as Ganjoo explains, UTM is a concept – not a product. Let’s start with one primary aspect of what UTM is designed to do: keep drones and other aircraft from having accidents.

As an example, let’s say that a drone from Amazon needs to deliver a package to a home on your street.  The flight is programmed to fly over the local hospital, which stands between the Amazon warehouse and the home.  But as that flight is nearing the hospital, an emergency comes up requiring that a helicopter leave the roof of the hospital to reach a patient.

That’s the kind of scenario that makes lawmakers cringe – and it’s a problem that needs to be solved.  With a successful UTM system, the drone and the helicopter might be able to communicate – automatically – establishing the priority of the helicopter and re-routing the drone.  Or a drone delivery corridor which avoided the hospital helipad might be established, avoiding the issue.

Let’s say that the drone isn’t delivering a toothbrush, but life-saving cardiac defibrillation equipment to an accident scene.  Now how do you quickly, safely, and fairly establish which goes first?  It’s an example that indicates that the use case might be important.  The point is that in order to become widespread, drones need a way of communicating with all other aircraft (both “cooperative” and “non-cooperative” aircraft – i.e., other commercials or rogue operators) in order to avoid crashing. (The UTM community prefers the euphemism “de-confliction.” ) They also need to establish priority and right of way based on a variety of factors like geography and application.

The term UTM was reportedly coined by NASA scientist Parimal Kopardekar (PK), widely recognized as the “father of UTM” who serves as manager of the NASA’s Safe Autonomous System Operations Project.  In a talk at Google last spring on the topic of UTM, PK said UTM was about the “safe enabling of drone operations in low-altitude airspace,” and explained that the goals of the system include consideration of National and regional security; realization of the economic value of low-altitude drone applications; and scalability – so those drone applications can continue to grow.

It’s a problem NASA has been working on for some time – and in partnership with industry contributors like ANRA, they continue to test systems and solutions.  UTM will have to take into consideration communications between aircraft, sensor information, and an ID and tracking system much like airplane registrations or car license plates.  There may need to be restricted areas and drone corridors established.  Some parts of UTM are technical and others are regulatory: together, they’ll make some sort of an architecture that enables safe drone applications performed in low altitude airspace.

If “systems and solutions” still sounds vague, it is.  UTM describes the best practices and the technical framework around managing unmanned traffic, Ganjoo clarifies: it isn’t one software solution or platform that will be released all at once in working order.

When Will UTM be Finished?

Like any huge undertaking, that’s another question that’s hard to answer.  UTM is a NASA research program, and most of the work happens out of the Ames Lab in CA.  NASA has established a set program of Technical Capability Level Demonstrations.  TCL 1 and TCL 2 are over; TCL 3 is happening now.  Each TCL works on aspects of the entire architecture, becoming increasingly complex.  While NASA’s originally program called for 4 TCLs, completed in 2019 for a transition to the FAA for further development, it appears that the timeline has been speeded up in response to industry pressures, and NASA and the FAA have already begun working together.

While every aspect of a UTM architecture hasn’t been developed, parts of UTM are already in play.  “In the interim, industry is already implementing on these concepts as they are released,” says Ganjoo.   In addition, Ganjoo explains that there won’t be one UTM system implemented. “There isn’t going to be a national system – there will be many service suppliers operating across the country and they will share operations and de-conflict and share with the broader system like airports,” he says.

Cui Bono?

Both the drone industry and regulators will clearly benefit from a well-established system for enabling safe commercial drone applications.  But recent reports have put forth claims of a $500 million UTM “market,” which prompts the question: who profits from UTM?  That one, says Ganjoo, is still something of a mystery.  Certainly some individual companies will be able to sell solutions that solve some aspect of the problem, but as of yet the two critical questions – who profits and who pays – remain unanswered.  Some models call for the commercial drone industry to foot the bill; others suggest that it’s a government responsibility.  Whether the actual figure is $500 million or $500 billion, it’s one aspect of the issue that won’t be solved quickly.



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