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Air Traffic Control for Drones Is on Its Way

Posted: 7 June 2017, 7:45 p.m. EDT
(Image Credit: Associated Press-©)

John Cavolowsky, director, Aerospace Operations and Systems Program, NASA’s Aeronautics Research Directorate; NASA Unmanned Aerial Systems Traffic Management team, live from NASA’s Ames Research Center

by  Duane Hyland, AIAA Communications

With the increased use of unmanned aircraft in the years ahead, an air traffic management system for drones will be a necessity, said John Cavolowsky, director of the Airspace Operations and Systems Program in NASA’s Aeronautics Research Directorate.

Cavolowsky shared some of NASA’s work on unmanned aerial systems traffic management, or UTM, with attendees June 7 during “Solutions to UAS Air Traffic Management (UTM) Challenges” at the Demand for Unmanned Symposium at the 2017 AIAA AVIATION Forum in Denver.

UTM development is “a lot like herding cats, except they are smart cats with their own business objectives and needs,” Cavolowsky said. A lot of what a UTM system would do, he said, is “enable their access to the airspace in ways that haven’t been done before and trying to that safely so that they can execute their missions successfully.”

Cavolowsky said drones are like the “fruit flies” of the aviation industry.

“The cycle of change is very fast, coming in a matter of weeks while airplanes are decades in the making,” he said.

According to Cavolowsky, a UTM system would be for drones that weigh 55 pounds or less and operate under 400 feet.

(Image: An engineer flies a DJI Phantom 3 drone. Credit:  Associated Press–©)

“It would be independent of the traditional air traffic management system that exists today,” he said, explaining that there “would be multiple UTM systems operating, not a single, large one,” which would allow users to tailor the systems to their needs.

Live from NASA’s Ames Research Center, NASA’s UTM development team showed real-time data from ongoing UTM tests in Virginia, North Dakota, Texas, Alaska and Nevada. They walked attendees through a variety of tests and the findings they have deduced so far from the data. The team said to achieve the tests, it worked with over 250 partners throughout the industry that plan to use drones in their businesses.

Cavolowsky reassured the audience that UTM will not supplant the need for humans in the loop.

“The thought that we will move people from the process anytime soon is not going to happen soon,” he said.

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