Industry and government representatives briefed Capitol Hill staffers on Wednesday on the still-new efforts to create an unmanned air traffic network that in turn would bolster the growth of the UAS industry.
Representatives from NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, Google, Amazon and Verizon discussed their work on unmanned aircraft integration at an event sponsored by AUVSI and hosted by Reps. Mimi Walters, R-California, and Dina Titus, D-Nevada.
Walters pointed out that the FAA’s reauthorization bill is again before Congress and said lawmakers need to ensure that version includes provisions to expand UAS use and to promote other technologies.
Titus agreed, saying that while airspace safety must be maintained, “we also don’t want to be so hidebound that we can’t move this industry forward.”
NASA is working on an unmanned traffic management, or UTM, concept that is expected to be completed in sections and then turned over to industry or other government agencies to develop. The first section was tested in August, which mostly looked at topics such as geofencing, where drones are kept away from certain areas, and trajectory planning.
John Cavalowsky, NASA’s director of airspace operations and safety program for the agency’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, demonstrated on Wednesday the type of UTM system NASA foresees.
In it, a drone operator entered a proposed flight route. The system evaluated it against obstacles, including other aircraft and potential hazards on the ground, and rejected the route. The operator then changed it and gained approval.
Google and Amazon have similar ideas for such systems. Amazon’s calls for a high-speed UAS transit corridor between 200 and 400 feet, with slower systems flying below that and larger ones above it.
Amazon’s Sean Cassidy, the director of strategic partnerships for Amazon Prime Air, noted that currently there are 7,000 commercial airliners conducting about 86,000 flight operations per day, governed by 17,800 air traffic controllers.
With tens of thousands of small UAS expected to take to the air in coming years, “clearly that system does not scale up,” he said.
Instead, the future system needs to be decentralized and flexible, similar to the way cell phone operations work now: As a cell phone user moves around, their service will switch seamlessly in the background.
Google[x]’s Travis Mason, a member of its public policy and government relations team, agreed, saying, “This industry is not going to scale with the same technology as yesterday.”
He said the developing UTM needs to include aircraft identity and authentication, airspace services and cooperative flight.
Google and Amazon are nontraditional players in the national airspace, as they are both relatively new to the world of flight. Another nontraditional company getting involved is Verizon, which has been working with NASA on the UTM system, including by exploring how cell towers could be used to monitor drones.
Verizon’s Ashok Srivastava, the company's chief data scientist, said the fact that many of the partners are using the principles of open-source technology should increase the overall security of the UTM.
He also said that many companies might incorporate the bottom-line aspects of a new UTM system and then add value on top of it, such as by incorporating software to allow specific tasks such as multi-drone use.
“This could be a great engine for small business to grow and to thrive,” he said.
Before that happens, at least in the United States, the FAA needs to allow commercial use of drones. Marke “Hoot” Gibson, the FAA’s new senior adviser on UAS to the deputy administrator of the FAA, said the government isn’t as nimble as industry, but it’s trying, and he’s proud of the work the FAA has done so far.
“I can’t think of a larger aviation change, a more fundamental change, than we are involved in right now,” he said.
The FAA has created several Pathfinder Programs to investigate areas such as beyond-line-of-sight flight, which will be necessary before Google and Amazon can get their plans fully off the ground.
“Hopefully we will keep up.”