As a new decade begins, the commercial drone industry is poised to soar. A recent FAA report reveals that – in the U.S. alone – the non-model UAS sector will see more than 835,000 drones in the air by 2023.
As airspace grows more crowded, government and industry leaders view safety as the top priority in crafting future drone policy.
While most pilots operate legally and safely, a few irresponsible users make big headlines by doing stupid things, like flying near airports.
Clearly, the authorities believe the drone sphere needs a system of checks and balances. Enter the UTM.
Short for Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management, UTM systems are drone traffic cops. Their mission: prevent drones and other aircraft from having accidents through better communication and situational awareness.
UTM isn’t just “one thing.” It’s a multi-layered concept encircled by emerging technologies, regulations and collaboration among regulators, pilots and corporate officials.
Considerable progress has been made to create UTM systems. However, the process remains in the testing phase for now. In the U.S., the FAA is partnering with NASA and a group of drone-industry leaders to test and implement a domestic UTM. The FAA describes the UTM as a process “to explore concepts of operation, data exchange requirements, and a supporting framework to enable multiple beyond visual line-of-sight drone operations at low altitudes (under 400 feet above ground level) in airspace where FAA air traffic services are not provided.”
Parimal Kopardekar, Director of NASA’s Aeronautics Research Institute, is widely regarded as the father of UTM and is believed to have first coined the term.
“In early 2013, I began to think about future needs and speculated that there will be a need for a UAS Traffic Management system,” Kopardekar said in an interview with AOPA.
“[UTM] services could include 3-D maps, flight planning, weather predictions, track-and-locate, communications, surveillance, etc.,” he added.
In 2016, NASA launched 24 drones across six FAA test sites in one of the first UTM demonstrations. The test coordinated the flight plans and mission profiles of all 24 drones, checking each one before accepting or rejecting them and then sending status notifications to each pilot. “The purpose of this test is for operators outside NASA from all six FAA test sites to interact with the UTM research platform at geographically diverse locations, using various aircraft and different software clients to test rural, within line-of-sight UAS operations so that NASA, in collaboration with the FAA, can obtain information to further refine and develop the research,” a NASA statement noted.
Moving on UPP
The consortium launched the UTM Pilot Program (UPP) in 2017. Earlier this year, the FAA selected three UAS Test Sites for the UPP. Officials called it the first step in creating a workable UTM. Located in Nevada, North Dakota and Virginia, the program is tasked with integrating a “prototype enterprise service” into FAA operations to support UTM.
A Little TCL
Over the past three years, NASA has developed a protocol for UTM development called Technical Capability Levels. Think of it as a series of testing hoops the UTM pilot program had to jump through to move to the nest step with each test more difficult than the one before.
- TCL 1 tested drone operations in firefighting, agriculture and infrastructure inspection. Drone pilots successfully filed flight plans to reserve airspace. The plans also created situational-awareness data.
- TCL 2 deployed technology that equipped users with beyond-visual-line-of-sight resources in low-population regions.
- TCL 3 built on the success of TCL 2 and focused on establishing and maintaining safe distancing between “cooperative (responsive) and non-cooperative (non-responsive) UAS over moderately populated areas.”
- TCL 4 wrapped up earlier this year a few months ahead of schedule, thanks to industry requests. The program launched drones over urban areas to test news-gathering missions and package delivery.
UTM Goes Global
The quest for UTM became a global issue in 2017 after the UN agency International Civil Aviation Organization issued a request for information on the topic.
The agency identified three focus areas: a registration process that will create a drone remote identification and tracking system, a communication and tracking system and a geofencing protocol that will “support automatic updates by national authorities … to prevent [drone] operation in sensitive security areas and restricted or danger areas such as near [airports].”
At an ICAO meeting in Bangkok earlier this year, UAV firm Terra Drone announced plans to create a Japanese UTM field-test area in 2020. The program will focus on delivery, disaster response and infrastructure inspection.
Blue Skies Ahead
As UTM concerns continue to stay on the regulatory radars of global agencies, first-adopter companies stand to gain a huge windfall.
Research firm ReportLinker predicted in 2018 that the UTM market will grow to almost $2 billion by 2025.
“The growth of this segment can be attributed to the increased use of UTM services in various application areas, such as weather, flight information, emergency response, network and connectivity, and communication,” the report stated.
In a recent interview with Commercial UAV News, Amit Ganjoo, founder of UTM provider ANRA Technologies predicted drone traffic will increase exponentially as delivery services and autonomous human-transport services take off.
“Long term, you need to start looking at things like traffic flow management, capacity management, etc. Right now, we don’t have that many drones in the sky to worry about that. But when the air taxis like the ones Uber Air is talking about creating start to proliferate, you have multiple questions.”
“What will it mean to create standards so that highways in the sky can become a reality? That kind of ecosystem is only possible if we can enable the seamless integration of information from a variety of places and sources into the same system.”
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