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FAA Demos Manage Multiple Drone Flights in Close Proximity, Setting a Foundation for UTM System

BY Isabella Lee
10 September 2019

The timeline for launching a drone traffic management system (UTM) continues to see delays, but recent FAA demonstrations give us a boost in confidence that drone operators will have such a system to operate within in the near future.

The FAA, NASA, and their partners recently conducted three demonstrations involving multiple advanced drone operations in close proximity to each other at low altitudes (below 400 feet). The demonstrations included package delivery, aerial videography/photography, field surveys, utility inspections, and newsgathering.

UPP Demos

Two drones share the airspace during tests of traffic-management technology, which involved the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), at Virginia Tech. Image Source: Virginia Tech

FAA Demonstrations Conducted under the UTM Pilot Program

Each demonstration took place as part of the UTM Pilot Program (UPP)—a program established to help identify what’s needed to support a UAS traffic management system.

Essential to the success of each demonstration was the implementation of a UAS Volume Reservation (UVR)—a system the FAA plans to implement for alerting nearby drone operators of an emergency. When a UVR is in place, drone operators are notified and restrictions are imposed on sUAS that are allowed to operate in the area, usually due to an emergency such as life flight transporting an accident victim.

We walk through each of these advanced demonstrations below. You can also check out the video below to view clips from each of the demonstrations:

Unmanned Traffic Management System Demonstrations

Demonstration 1: Drone Operators Respond to a Helicopter Transporting a Car Crash Victim

The first demonstration, which involved the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), took place at Virginia Tech on June 13.

During the demonstration, separate drone flights delivered packages, studied wildlife, surveyed a cornfield, and covered a court case for TV. Because the flights were near an airport, all four flight plans were submitted through a service supplier and received approval to launch as planned.

While these flights were being conducted, an emergency helicopter needed to quickly transport a car crash victim to a hospital. The helicopter pilot submitted a request for a UAS Volume Reservation (UVR)an alert used to notify nearby drone operators of the emergency.

The deliveries were re-routed until the UVR was completed. The wildlife study, field survey, and court coverage continued safely away from the helicopter’s path.

Each operation was conducted without conflict.

Demonstration 2: Drone Operators Respond to a Medevac Helicopter

The second demonstration, which involved the Northern Plains UAS Test Site (NPUASTS), took place in Grand Forks on July 10.

During the demonstration, which occurred near an airport, a photographer and Part 107 drone operator took photos of firefighter training. An aviation student at the University of North Dakota used a drone to scan for the best tailgating location. Another Part 107 operator, employed at the electric company, used a drone to assess power line damage after recent strong winds.

The two Part 107 operators submitted flight plans due to their proximity to an airport, receiving proper approvals. During their flights, they received a UVR alert that a medevac helicopter was transporting a patient to the hospital from the firefighter training area. The operator taking photos of the training landed the drone before the UVR notice became active. The power line survey and the flight over the tailgate area continued at a safe distance.

Demonstration 3: Drone Operators are Notified of First Responders in the Airspace

The third, which involved the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems (NIAS), took place in Las Vegas on August 1.

During the demonstration, separate UAS flights were conducted to survey a golf course before a tournament, get video footage of a property being sold, and scan a nearby lake for boating opportunities.

All three operators accessed UAS Facility Maps and worked with a UAS Service Supplier (USS) to receive the proper approvals to conduct their flights.

A fire erupted at one of the golf course clubhouses. First responders sent a helicopter to contain the fire. They submitted a request to a USS to create a UVR. The UVR information is also shared with the FAA. The FAA shares the information with public portals, notifying each of the UAS operators that the firefighting helicopter was on its way to their flying area.

Each of the UAS operators, being properly notified, were able to either land or continue their operations at a safe distance.

What’s the holdup on UTM? Remote ID Rulemaking is Delayed for the Second Time

Albeit the demonstrations were successful, we’re still a long way away from having an active UTM in the U.S. One primary holdup has to do with issues establishing a remote identification system for drones. The FAA needs a Remote ID system to track the status of drones so they can provide that information to UTM managers. Without Remote ID, we’ll never see the UTM make real headway.

The FAA’s expected delivery date for a Remote ID notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) has been delayed to Dec. 20, with a comment period running through January 2020, according to a report from The Department of Transportation. This is the second time the date has been moved back, with a delay earlier this year moving the release to September from July.

Brian Wynne, President and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), issued the following statement regarding the delay:

It’s disappointing the rulemaking for remote identification has been delayed again. The need for remote identification cannot be overstated, as the advancement of the UAS industry depends on identifying and tracking UAS flying in the airspace.

— Brian Wynne, President and CEO, AUVSI

This infographic from Chirs Korody over at Drone Business Center outlines some of the tasks and contingencies that need to be completed prior to the implementation of Remote ID and the deployment of a UTM. Based on his calculations, Remote ID won’t be fully implemented until 2022.

Share your thoughts on the progress made toward a UTM thus far and the three FAA UPP demonstrations in this thread on our community forum.

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