Large-Scale Drone Traffic Management Research Effort Will Address Critical Need in Growing Industry | VTX

Virginia Tech has won its sixth major federal contract to conduct research on an increasingly pressing question: how to safely manage drone traffic.

The Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) has been selected to lead one of two teams participating in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) UTM Field Test, a research project designed to evaluate technology and standards being developed to help safely coordinate and prioritize drone flights as drone activity in low-level airspace intensifies. “UTM” is short for “Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Traffic Management”.

MAAP is one of seven FAA-designated drone test sites. For this project, it will partner with a sister test site, the Lone Star UAS Center of Excellence and Innovation at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi. MAAP, the Texas test site, and eight companies leading the development of technologies in this field will collaborate with the FAA and NASA on the project.

Drone technology is becoming more efficient; regulations are changing to accommodate more advanced operations. Several companies have announced plans in recent months to launch services such as drone delivery in locations across the country. All of this suggests a time is coming when drone technology can begin to yield its potential, but also when the physical distance that has allowed most operations to be run independently of each other will begin to shrink.

“We’re just starting to see things change,” said Tombo Jones, director of MAAP. “As we move beyond individual operations in autonomous areas, it will be essential to have technology that can plan and prioritize flights safely so that they do not interfere with each other. “

“These flight tests are critically important to the further development of UTM – the ability to take operational concepts and test them in complex ‘real world’ environments,” said Mike Sanders, executive director of the Texas test site. “We are very excited to be part of the MAAP team and leverage our ongoing work in UTM to contribute to the depth and breadth of the testing environment.”

Safely managing drone traffic requires various sources of data routed through multiple software platforms. Each of these technologies is developed by individual companies, under the supervision and evaluation of the FAA through research programs such as this one. The composition of the MAAP field test team reflects the complexity of this ecosystem.

ANRA Technologies, Collins and OneSky have all developed software platforms to plan and solve drone operations. Wing, which recently launched a residential drone delivery service in the Dallas metro area to complement its inaugural program in Christiansburg as part of its US operations, is developing technology to identify nearby drones and detect nearby drones. evaluate other UTM software.

Additional data, such as airspace restrictions and local activity information, will be fed into UTM platforms by systems from Airspacelink and data science company ATA LLC. A Raytheon radar will provide weather data and monitor the area for manned aircraft. Streamline Designs will provide some of its aircraft along with additional flight services that will allow the team to execute operations with a wider range of complexity.

“You need a diversity of participants in research like this to ensure that the broad industry perspective is taken into account,” said John Coggin, associate director of MAAP, who led each of the main research efforts on test site traffic management. “It’s like any other hard problem: you get the most useful outcome when you have as many stakeholders as possible contributing.”

The tests will take place at four sites: Kentland Farms, a rural test facility outside of Blacksburg where MAAP has often conducted complex research flights; suburban Christiansburg; and two urban sites in Corpus Christi.

Through an extensive series of test flights, the team will explore how to safely plan and prioritize operations in environments where multiple operators may want to use the same airspace at the same time. The research will address questions about how to facilitate seamless interactions between software from different companies, how to prioritize critical public safety and medical flights, and how to responsibly provide access to information about a drone. interest and ensure that public security officials can use this data. for security and law enforcement.

Cybersecurity will be a unifying theme throughout this year’s tests. As digital signals travel back and forth between drones, drone operators, and software platforms, mechanisms must be in place to protect sensitive information and verify that participants are accurately representing their identities.

The Virginia Tech team also plans to evaluate frameworks for companies to work together to facilitate the deployment of drone traffic management services and test automated means for validating new software – practical questions that need to be addressed. resolved before these systems can realistically be deployed on a large scale.

The UTM field trial is the successor to the FAA’s earlier UTM pilot program. MAAP was the only one of seven test sites to be selected for both phases one and two of this program; the data and insights gained from their research helped inform technology development and shape subsequent testing efforts.

“We are quickly getting to the point where traffic management is no longer an issue that we can put off,” Coggin said. “We are entering a transition from a state where we haven’t needed UTM to a state where we definitely need UTM. Research like this, which will help enable implementation in an evidence-based, safety-first way, is how we’re going to be able to navigate that big gray area between “don’t need” and “must have.” “. »

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