NASA building air-traffic control for low-flying drones

NASA building air-traffic control for low-flying drones

On June 25, a hobbyist drone forced the grounding of a fixed-wing aircraft fighting the Lake Fire in the San Bernardino Mountains, according to a tweet by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. That incident, along with drones crashing into the White House grounds and near-misses with commercial aircraft have underscored the urgency for better tracking of unmanned systems as they enter the national airspace.  

To that end, NASA is developing a system that can track low-altitude drones in concert with the Federal Aviation Administration for an UAS traffic management (UTM) system.  “NASA wants to create a system that would keep track of and deliver important information to operators of [unmanned aerial systems], such as which areas they should avoid, whether any other vehicles are trying to operate in the same airspace, and what the weather will be like in a given area,” said Parimal Kopardekar, manager of NASA’s Safe Autonomous Systems Operations project.  “The NASA team is researching and testing ways to communicate this data to UAS while they’re in flight, such as dynamic geo-fences, or virtual barriers, giving UAS operators the most updated information in real-time,” NASA said. 

For the FAA, part of the difficulty in integrating unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System – the world’s busiest yet also the safest – is the systems enabling the tracking and safe operation of manned aircraft, which operate generally between 10,000 and 35,000 feet, with unmanned aircraft that roam from 5 to 65,000 feet.

Smaller aircraft can literally fly under the radar, making detection difficult.  FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told lawmakers that the manned gyrocopter that recently landed at the White House was "’indistinguishable’ from other non-aircraft, such as a flock of birds, a kite or a balloon,” and it appeared as an “’irregular symbol’ on radar monitored by air traffic controllers.” 

While radar is traditionally used to detect aircraft, it was not designed to spot small, plastic, electric-powered drones. “Radar used to detect traditional aircraft can be modified to detect small drones, but it will also detect birds. If a drone alert is issued every time a bird flies too close to the White House, security personnel will turn off the cameras in frustration,” according to Zain Naboulsi and Phil Wheat, the creators of Drone Labs, a private drone detection company.

NASA’s UAS UTM proposal aims to serve as the aerial equivalent of ground traffic systems that consist of roads, lanes, stop signs, rules and lights for low-flying drones.  The UTM will model the air traffic management system, providing “airspace design, corridors, dynamic geo-fencing, severe weather and wind avoidance, congestion management, terrain avoidance, route planning and re-routing, separation management, sequencing and spacing, and contingency management,” according to NASA.  The UTM will not require human operators to monitor every vehicle continuously.  Rather, it will give humans the data “to make strategic decisions related to initiation, continuation and termination of airspace operations [to] ensure that only authenticated UAS operate in the airspace.” 

Additionally, NASA envisions two types of UTMs: a portable system to monitor operations that could move to various geographic locations and a persistent UTM system that would cover a particular geographic area with continuous coverage of low flying drones. 

NASA is hopeful that the UTM can be a tool that will bridge the commercial and public sector innovation gap in the vein of traffic management research.  “By working with partners who provide their own vehicles, low altitude radar, radio frequencies or cellphone towers, NASA will gain access to more technology for UTM applications to demonstrate unmanned aircraft systems can be safely operated at low altitudes,” the agency said.   

NASA is also exploring tracking low-altitude drones with cell phone towers.  While still in the initial stages of research, the system would monitor drone activity across the Verizon cellular network by picking up on sensing equipment aboard the aircraft. 

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.


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