Practicing For Real-Life UAS Events

A program called VirtualAirBoss developed by Smart C2 was integrated with NASA’s UAS Traffic Management system during emergency preparedness exercises off the coast of southern California.
By Patrick C. Miller | June 18, 2015

Sometimes life imitates art and other times, emergency preparedness exercises imitate reality.

During the first two weeks in June, the Center for Asymmetric Warfare (CAW) ran a series of exercises from the Port of Hueneme off the coast of southern California. More than 90 local, state and federal emergency response agencies collaborated to conduct the annual Coastal Trident Regional Maritime Security and Response Exercise.

Part of the exercise was designed to coordinate the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to assist during threats and emergencies. For three days, a program called VirtualAirBoss developed by Smart C2 was integrated with NASA’s UAS Traffic Management (UTM) system.

As this was happening, just up the California coast, efforts were underway to clean up more than 100,000 gallons of oil that leaked from a pipeline near Santa Barbara.

“It’s too bad we weren’t in place for the Santa Barbara oil spill because they had a terrible problem with all types of unmanned aircraft—just sightseers and rubberneckers wanting to go out and see what’s going on,” said Janet Ahlgren, Smart C2 chief operating officer. “And, boy, is that dangerous without this air traffic management system in place.”

Stuart Rudolph, Smart C2 CEO, pointed out that in addition to the hobbyist drones in the air shooting video of the oil spill, there were also a variety of manned aircraft, including TV news crews.

“Scenarios like that are our solution,” he said. “This is why we’ve all partnered together—NASA, the Center for Asymmetric Warfare and Smart C2 with the VirtualAirBoss—to be able to provide these incident responses and give people a better way to manage air traffic.”

As Ahlgren explained it, “Aviation requires you to share the airspace with a whole lot of other people. There needs to be organization and management of that space so that people do it safely.”

By coincidence, I was able to speak with Rudolph and Ahlgren shortly after they’d completed their part of the Coastal Trident exercise. They’d just landed in San Francisco and were driving to a meeting with NASA. Obviously, they were both excited about what had transpired.

“Our part of it went very well,” Rudolph said. “We were playing the role of the air boss at the event.”

In that role, they worked with law enforcement agencies and first responders to coordinate both large and small UAS during simulated maritime operations such as drug interdictions and the surveillance of suspicious boats. UAS were flown from land, off boats and from oil rigs.

“Our goal was to see how it could be used with different groups coming together and to manage the areas in which they’re flying and to be able to understand the good and the bad of what takes place,” Rudolph said. “We had a very good learning exercise. It was full participation and we got a lot out of it.”

Rudolph noted that he’s worked with the Center for Asymmetric Warfare for several years, and it was during one of its previous exercises that he came up with the concept for the VirtualAirBoss software, a user-friendly system for anyone familiar with a web browser.

“The way that we’ve set the system up, it takes them through the workflow in a manner that keeps them compliant with FAA regulations,” he said. “We allow them to understand what they need to do by walking them through the steps.”

Real-life events such as the oil spill at Santa Barbara help us understand the need for a traffic management system that can handle manned and unmanned aircraft of all shapes and sizes. Exercises like Coastal Trident are getting us there.