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Unmanned Traffic Management System Update – Paramal Kopardekar (PK), NASA Ames Research Center

What’s going on with efforts to develop the unmanned traffic management system?


If you ask today’s guest, he would tell you a lot has been accomplished and there are some exciting things ahead.  Parimal Kopardekar, PK for short, serves as manager of the NASA’s Safe Autonomous System Operations Project. The goal of the project is to develop autonomy related concepts, technologies and architectures that will increase efficiency, safety, and capacity of airspace operations. At NASA, he has initiated many innovative research projects.  Prior to this current project, he managed the Next Generation Air Transportation Systems (NextGen) Concepts and Technology Development Project. He has published more than 40 articles, and is recipient of numerous NASA awards including Outstanding Leadership Medal and Engineer of the Year. He holds a doctorate and master’s degrees in Industrial Engineering and bachelor’s degree in production engineering.  In this episode of the Drone Radio Show, PK talks about NASA’s role in developing the Unmanned Transportation Management System and shares what’s been accomplished, the current status and what we can expect in the future for unmanned traffic management.

In This Episode

  • Introduction.  Parimal Kopardekar, PK for short, serves as manager of the NASA’s Safe Autonomous System Operations Project. The goal of the project is to safely enable large scale small unmanned aircraft system operations in the national air space.
  • Impetus for the UTM. PK shares how the UTM was conceptualized about four years ago, when he started to think about other users who would begin to enter the space and what the needs would be. Small UAS systems were on the rise, and there would be a need to integrate their operation, particularly as they evolved to perform autonomous, beyond visual line of sight and other complex operations. This led to a discussion with industry partners and FAA.
  • The Challenge: By 2020, it’s expected that there will be about 7 million small unmanned aircraft systems in the sky. Of those 7 million, there will be 2.6 million commercial operations so if you compare that with the current situation, you one quickly realizes that the current way of managing air traffic may not scale effectively. The objective is to digitally connect everything in the airspace, thus giving operators the situation awareness of all the constraints as well as other operations, so they can operate their systems safely.
  • Program and Accomplishments. The UTM strategy is structured into four key Technical Capability Levels. PK talks about each level and what’s been accomplished. The first two levels have been completed. The third is nearly complete and the fourth will follow.
    • UTM TCL1 concluded field testing in August 2015 and is undergoing additional testing at an FAA site. Technologies in this activity addressed operations for agriculture, firefighting and infrastructure monitoring, with a focus on geofencing, altitude “rules of the road” and scheduling of vehicle trajectories.
    • UTM TCL2, completed in October 2016, leveraged TCL1 results and focused on beyond visual line-of-sight operations in sparsely populated areas. Researchers tested technologies that allowed dynamic adjustments to availability of airspace and contingency management.
    • UTM TCL3, scheduled for Spring 2018, will leverage TCL2 results and focus on testing technologies that maintain safe spacing between cooperative (responsive) and non-cooperative (non-responsive) UAS over moderately populated areas.
    • UTM TCL4, with dates to be determined, will leverage TCL3 results and focus on UAS operations in higher-density urban areas for tasks such as news gathering and package delivery. It will also test technologies that could be used to manage large-scale contingencies.
  • Lessons Learned. PK shares some of the observations coming out of the first two capabilities helpful in moving the project forward. For example, when altitude, wind and temperature can affect batter life, so some locations around the country will produce different expectations of drone operation and performance. Secondly, standardization procedures or protocols had to be developed so that results obtained at different test sites (and different mean sea elevations) could be compared and analyzed consistently. Thirdly, the effect of wind flows varied based on the type of drone (i.e., multi-rotor or fixed-wing), which had to be accounted for in the evaluation of results.
  • Required Capabilities. Before significant progress could be made on the UTM, several capabilities had to be developed, including building data exchange protocols and application call interfaces, creating the sense and avoid technologies, creating smaller sense and avoid sensor packages that can fit on a small drone, solid communications detect and avoid, scheduling capabilities and a standardized data exchange protocol.
  • Next Steps. The NASA UTM team is currently working on completing the 3rds TCL. Next year, NASA hopes to focus on the air space around urban areas.
  • What Commercial Operators Need to Know Now. As UTM is developed, it will open the market for U.S. suppliers of planning and tracking services, communications and other such services. Also, by being part of the UTM collaboration, commercial operators are able to demonstrate they have the capabilities to communicate and operate with other vehicles and operators in the sky.
  • Relationship to the Drone Integration Program. Although the Drone Integration Program is a separate pilot program administered by the FAA, there are a couple of references to UTM in the rules. Most notably, there are references calling for testing UTM technologies and collaborating with NASA on data that could be shared with FAA.
  • Implementation. The relationship between FAA and NASA is such that the FAA is not waiting until the conclusion of all phases to implement UTM. As things mature, the FAA plans to roll out initiatives.
  • Closing.  NASA has been involved in the air traffic management related research and development for the last 25 years, and UTM is one more item that NASA is very passionate about. The agency is very happy to collaborate directly with the FAA, industry and academia. It’s a really good example of contributions by all for the benefit of the public, private industry and the overall safety of the airspace operations.

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