Experts discuss approaches for UAS traffic management

By Patrick C. Miller | May 28, 2015

Imagine a sky full of roads, traffic signals and signs that exist only on the computer screens of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) operators, a traffic control system that becomes more precise and restrictive as needed.

“Even if you have a self-driving car, you still need a framework and structure for operating it,” said Parimal Kopardekar, manager of NASA’s Safe Autonomous Systems Operations Project during a panel on UAS traffic management at the AUVSI Unmanned Systems 2015 conference in Atlanta this month.

Kopardekar outlined the approach for managing large numbers of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) currently being researched by NASA, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and more than 100 industry and government partners.

“We need to have a virtual framework, a virtual infrastructure in the sky that allows us to operate these vehicles in a safe manner,” he noted.

This approach considers the demands on airspace and conditions below it, loosening and tightening restrictions on UAS as the demands increase or decrease. For example, in rural areas where there’s little air traffic, control will be minimal. But for UAS operations in populated areas or near busy airports, more control will be exerted.

“The mantra is flexibility where possible and structure where absolutely necessary,” Kopardekar explained. “So we’re not creating anything static except for the geo-fences that are made for the airports that are static. The rest of the things are very dynamic.”

The most restrictive level is reserved for emergency situations in which the need for UAS operations requires very precise control.

“If we don’t need a structure, if there’s no demand and/or a need for capacity balance, there’s no problem,” Kopardekar said. “If there is a demand and a need for capacity balance, then you create routes and restrictions for altitude and such.”

There’s a great deal of flexibility built into the system that will be rolled out in four different builds over the next few years.

“Every build doesn’t have to be a rebuild,” Kopardekar stressed. “It’s nicely targeted so that local and state authorities can decide which option is best for them.”

Mike Glasgow, chief architect for the Lockheed Martin Aviation Services group, described a flight service system in development that collects weather, aeronautical and flight plan information and disseminates it to other systems and people—especially pilots. It includes an alerting service to let pilots know if there are any changes related to their flight plan.

The system enables UAS operators to file flight plans online that could take the place of the FAA’s current Notice To the Airman (NOTAM) system.

“There is a little concern that as (UAS) growth and operations increase dramatically, the NOTAM system may become overwhelmed by being the repository for flight plans for UAS,” Glasgow said. “Right now, we’re working on integrating with the NOTAM system. By this summer, when you file on the website, it will also create the NOTAM for you.”

Other panelists included James Williams, director of the FAA’s Office of UAS Integration; Dallas Brooks, director of UAS research and development for New Mexico State University Physical Science Laboratory; and Mike Glasgow, chief architect for the Lockheed Martin Aviation Services group.


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