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FAA Moves Forward with UTM Testing, Focuses on Remote ID for Operations in High-Density Areas

BY Zacc Dukowitz
30 April 2020

As the drone world hustles to leverage drones in the COVID-19 fight, the FAA has quietly been pushing its UTM (Unmanned Traffic Management) testing forward.

faa-utm-drones
Image source

Most recently, the FAA announced two new partners in its UTM Pilot Program (UPP). The Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership in Blacksburg, VA and Griffiss International Airport in Rome, NY have both been selected as test site participants for Phase 2 of the FAA’s UTM testing.

Why should you care?

Because UTM is crucial to integrating drones into the national airspace. If successfully implemented, UTM will represent a huge step forward for the drone industry by helping to open up operations currently prohibited by the FAA’s Part 107 rules.

The UTM project conducts research to make it possible for small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS), commonly known as “drones,” to safely access low-altitude airspace beyond visual line of sight.

– NASA

Flying BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) is prohibited by the Part 107 rules. But a reliable UTM system could enable BVLOS flying as a regular operation for drone pilots, opening up use cases for drones in many different scenarios, including powerline and railroad inspections, drone deliveries, search and rescue missions, precision agriculture, and land surveying, to name a few.

What Is UTM?

Here’s how the FAA defines it:

Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM) is a “traffic management” ecosystem for uncontrolled operations that is separate from, but complementary to, the FAA’s Air Traffic Management (ATM) system. UTM development will ultimately identify services, roles and responsibilities, information architecture, data exchange protocols, software functions, infrastructure, and performance requirements for enabling the management of low-altitude uncontrolled drone operations.

Visit the FAA’s UTM webpage to learn more.

The FAA and NASA’s Ongoing UTM Partnership

There was a time when UTM referred more to an idea than to real technology.

Not so today.

The last few years have seen significant progress toward making UTM a reality. Although the fact that the FAA is just entering Phase 2 of its testing may make it seem like we’re not very far along, we’ve actually made a great deal of progress on the UTM front in the last four years.

Prior to the FAA starting its UTM testing, NASA completed four rigorous phases of its own testing. Each phase of NASA’s UTM testing was called a Technical Capability Level (TCL). NASA began its TCL UTM testing in 2016 and concluded them in 2019.

nasa-faa-utm-image
Image credit: NASA

Here’s a quick rundown of the UTM testing NASA did prior to handing testing over to the FAA:

  • TCL 1. Enabled multiple operations under constraints, flying within Visual Line of Sight (VLOS)—Completed in 2016.
  • TCL 2. Demonstrated BVLOs operations with a focus on 1) Feasibility, 2) Functionality, and 3) Applicability & Integration*—Completed in 2016.
  • TCL 3. Completed shakedowns and test flights at six test sites while connected to NASA’s UTM system. Testing was coordinated from the Airspace Operations Lab at NASA Ames Research Center between May and June—Completed in 2018.
  • TCL 4. Concludedsimultaneous flight operations of multiple small UAS over complex urban environments in two different test sites from May through August—Completed in 2019.

*Note: TCL 2 BVLOS testing continued into 2017, with 40 partners contributing to multiple tests at six different test sites.

Learn more about each NASA’s UTM work here.

Remote ID and the Next Phase of UTM Testing

Phase 1 of the FAA’s UTM testing was completed in August of 2019. It tested capabilities such as the exchange of flight intent data among UAS operators and had participants generate UAS Volume Reservations (UVRs), which are notifications to operators about inbound priority operations.

Phase 2 will take a closer look at Remote ID in higher-density areas as well as the use of UAS in public safety operations.

Here’s a complete list of what Phase 2 partners in the FAA’s UPP (UTM Pilot Program), including its two new partners in VA and NY, are expected to support:

  • UAS operations in high-density airspace
  • Remote ID services
  • USS transmission of flight information to air traffic control due to an off-nominal UTM event
  • Public safety operations
  • UAS Volume Reservations (UVR) service

The FAA plans to use the data collected from its Phase 2 testing to inform a cross-agency UTM Implementation Plan. Although a plan is not actual implementation, it is exciting to hear about planning for a rollout of UTM.

A Closing Note on Remote ID

At the start of this year, Remote ID was an incredibly hot—not to mention controversial—topic. This was because the FAA had recently issued a rule about Remote ID that had several stakeholders in the drone industry concerned, including us.

We’ll be curious to learn more about the outcomes of the Remote ID testing the FAA conducts, and specifically to see if any new avenues for implementing Remote ID in the context of UTM are pursued that might address the concerns many had at the start of the year.

Are you excited about the progress being made with UTM? Share your thoughts on this thread in the UAV Coach community forum.

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