drone at airport (Shutterstock.com)

FAA preps traffic management for drones

The Federal Aviation Administration expects to complete the nationwide deployment of Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability for unmanned aircraft systems by the end of this month and demonstrate a UAS traffic management (UTM) system by next year, according to testimony from the administration during a Sept. 6 hearing about integrating drones into the national airspace.

LAANC is used to automate approvals for drone flights near airports. Drone operators use an app to submit flight  information and have it checked against FAA preapproval zones and temporary flight restrictions. If approved, the system returns an authorization for flight in near real time. The system currently covers  82 percent of air traffic facilities in the country, according to the FAA.

But LAANC is just one step toward a nationwide UTM system, witnesses said during the House Transportation Aviation subcommittee hearing.

“Our plan for future UTM capabilities includes a number of components -- LAANC, remote identification  and dynamic airspace management -- that will support the needs of industry, FAA, and our security partners,” FAA Technical Center Director Shelley Yak said in her written testimony.

All five witnesses on the panel said they were in favor of requiring aircraft to have remote ID capabilities that would allow law enforcement along with other drone operators to identify unmanned systems in the airspace.

Remote identification is "a critical, foundational element for any sort of universal traffic management system,” said Mariah Scott, the president of Skyward, a drone management firm.

She described UTM as a “decentralized network, like a wireless network or the internet, for coordinating all types of aircraft efficiently, safely and scalably.” This system will require a number of different communication links: from the operator to the drone, from the drone to other drones, from the drone to the UTM,  and so on. How exactly this communication will be handled is still being studied.

To ensure stable dynamic communications  between the drone and the operator, Yak said the FAA is researching "frequency levels, the minimum operational performance requirements for that data link to ensure the integrity of that link to allow us to integrate these aircraft into the system.”

JoeBen Bevirt, the founder and CEO of Joby Aviation, an aircraft manufacturer, said the communication links need to be “redundant and diverse.” That would mean a drone could have secure connections to both satellite and cellular networks as a form of backup, he said.

UberElevate is working with NASA and the FAA “to develop and test the information exchange protocols between the FAA’s systems and the industry-based UAS service supplier systems,” said Tom Prevot, the company's director of engineering and airspace systems. “To kickstart this area of collaboration, a simulation study will be conducted at NASA Ames Research center in the Silicon Valley in just two weeks,” he said in his testimony.

Yak said the FAA plans to demonstrate its UTM capabilities sometime next year.

“I think the UAS traffic management arena is blossoming well,” she said. “We have a demo coming up in the 2019 timeframe.” The FAA will be work with NASA and industry to fly drones through test sites and simulate drone flights through the NextGen Integration and Evaluation Capability Laboratory, she said.

“The technical and regulatory project of integrating the airspace is enormous,” Scott said. “Small steps are already having a tremendous impact -- but now we need to make bigger strides.”

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a reporter/producer at GCN.

Before joining GCN, Leonard worked as a local reporter for The Smithfield Times in southeastern Virginia. In his time there he wrote about town council meetings, local crime and what to do if a beaver dam floods your back yard. Over the last few years, he has spent time at The Commonwealth Times, The Denver Post and WTVR-CBS 6. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received the faculty award for print and online journalism.

Leonard can be contacted at mleonard@gcn.com or follow him on Twitter @Matt_Lnrd.

Click here for previous articles by Leonard.

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