UAS traffic management systems (UTMs)
The FAA plans that UTMs will provide the primary means of communication and coordination between the FAA, UAS operators, and other stakeholders is through automated systems and not between pilots and air traffic controllers via voice. UTM systems are not a single piece of technology but a collection of sensors, operator interfaces, and decision-making programs that enable safe and efficient UAS flight and operations by providing the following services such as:
- Airspace design - involves the designation or restriction of specific portions of the atmosphere for various aircraft flight performing various operations;
- Corridors - specific sub-sections of an airspace that an aircraft is restricted to for flight or specific operations;
- Geofencing - relying on Global Positioning Systems (GPS), dynamic geofencing is a technical means of overriding UAS operations to restrict flight navigation and specific operations within a predefined or dynamic portion of airspace;
- Weather and wind avoidance – Severe weather and wind can impede an operators line-of-sight and operation of UAS, effective UTMs will coordinate with meteorological monitoring systems to prevent or lessen these detrimental effects to UAS operation;
- Congestion management - increased use of UAS by private, public, and industry operators will increase the risk within an airspace. Congestion management helps mitigate these risks by restricting or organizing entry and operations with the airspace;
- Terrain and collision avoidance – Assistance provided by the UTM to ensure that UAS can sense and avoid obstacles in the airspace including other aircraft, buildings, and the ground or sea;
- Route planning, re-routing, and location management – involves the directions, given by the UTM, to determine the appropriate location, speed, spacing, sequencing of all UAS while in the controlled airspace for safe and efficient operation;
- Contingency management – Inevitably, errors, unexpected changes, or bad actors may impinge an airspace negating or complicating a UAS’s ability to safely operate. Contingency management involves a UTM’s anticipation of and reaction to the possible deviations to UAS flight plans that might occur in an airspace.
Semi-automated UTM Systems
Like many state-of-the-art traffic management systems, NASA’s UTM research is pursuing a semi-automated system that enables UTM operators to not have to continuously monitor every UAS in the air. Such intelligent UTM systems would provide UTM operators with critical data to strategically manage the airspace, automatically checking that all operating UAS are authorized, and providing optimized airspace planning decisions given airspace congestion, weather conditions, and other mitigating influences on the airspace.
Pursuing Portable or Persistent UTM Systems
Of the various ways NASA pursues a semi-automated UTM system, there are two general types of UTM systems. First, Portable UTM systems would be equipment that UTM operators physically transport between needed areas to support UAS operations such as precision agriculture and disaster relief. The second type of system is a Persistent UTM system. A Persistent UTM not be transported but instead established in areas of anticipated areas of continuous UAS use (such as cities). For either system, UTM operators would require continuous communication, navigation, and surveillance (CNS) coverage for all UAS and their operators, to track, ensure, and monitor safe UAS operation in the airspace.
Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability
Already, the FAA has also begun commencing development of the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC), a persistent UTM supporting air traffic control authorization requirements for UAS operations by providing operators with near real-time airspace authorizations. The semi-automated LAANC is able to decrease wait-time for operators planning their routes by providing real-time airspace data, Air Traffic Control safety notices, and UAS facility maps indicating the acceptable airspace.
Some of the challenges associated with traffic management for UAS is determining the best means of establishing a command and control system among the UAS, operators, and the UTM system that is also integrated with the communication networks of other aircraft and air traffic controllers. Current research pursued by NASA includes assessing the capabilities of UAS to support sense and detect technologies that can effectively communicate with other aircraft and the UTM using 4G cellular networks while not sacrificing the flight capabilities of the UAS.