US space agency NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are working together on an air traffic control system for commercial drone services.
The concept of drone delivery is an exciting one. Packages soaring through the skies toward multiple destinations; retail deliveries and important supplies dropped on your doorstep in a matter of minutes, not days.
Logistics companies and retailers from Amazon to DHL and Walmart are all at varying stages of drone delivery testing. But while the ability to carry parcels through the air isn’t in doubt, the devil is in the detail.
Aside from lingering questions over infrastructure and potential interference, the main challenge is a simple one: How do you organize the flights of hundreds (or even thousands) or unmanned aerial vehicles? How do you ensure that they can fly autonomously, beyond the line of sight of supervision and avoid crashing into one another?
The answer may lie in NASA’s drone traffic control system, currently under development in Nevada.
A drone traffic management solution
NASA and a number of partners, including the FAA and telecoms giant T-Mobile, are in the midst of testing the latest iteration of an Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Traffic Management (UTM) system. The tests involve remotely-operated aircraft, also known as drones, flying autonomously at six different sites around the United States.
The three-week campaign, which started at the beginning of May, has focused on flying drones beyond the pilots’ visual line of sight over sparsely populated areas.
This is the second year that NASA has taken its UTM technologies on the road to review and refine their capabilities. They are now up to what they call ‘Technology Capability Level (TCL) 2’
“Being able to design, build and test each TCL phase at NASA, and then take it to the six FAA UAS test sites for more in-depth analysis, is a productive way to conduct comprehensive evaluations,” said Tom Prevot, associate project manager for NASA’s Safe Autonomous Systems Operations Project.
Virtual aircraft add complexity
Safely testing aircraft management systems is a challenge. To counter that, as well as conducting tests in sparsely populated locations, researchers are introducing virtual aircraft to simulate potential real-world use cases.
By simulating multiple aircraft going about their business – everything from package deliveries to agricultural surveys, infrastructure inspections and search and rescue missions – the NASA team can create a complex scenario in which new technologies can be tested.
The system will eventually include geofencing – using software to close off sections of airspace above areas such as airports and military bases – obstacle avoidance, communication, navigation and surveillance.
“This campaign demonstrates how teams from a variety of agencies can collaborate and find solutions that address the technical hurdles facing federal regulators,” said Chris Walach, director of the FAA-designated Nevada UAS Test Site.
The development of NASA’s drone traffic management system is expected to continue in two more phases, TCL3 and TCL4. Each will be progressively more complex, with more drones, more specific tasks and increasingly populated areas.
These stages are scheduled for 2018 and beyond. The companies clamouring to make drone deliveries a reality will be waiting.