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How Do We All Get Along?

A Look at the FAA’s Strategy for UAS Integration into the NAS

by Tom Hoffmann
Source: FAA Safety Briefing

As of March 7, 2017, there were more than 750,000 drone registrants in the United States. Although most of the drones that are being operated are of the small hobbyist variety, that number has now more than doubled the number of piloted aircraft registered with the FAA, and forecast models say that we could well reach the 7 million mark by 2020. When you couple that with recent data indicating a continued uptick in potential drone sightings among pilots, there is a reasonable concern among pilot groups, particularly general aviation (GA), about what the future holds for an all-inclusive strategy for manned and unmanned aircraft sharing the same National Airspace (NAS). So, how do we all get along?

If you’ll indulge my analogy for a moment, I tend to see the relationship between unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and manned aircraft operators in the NAS not unlike that of a sibling rivalry. I have a brother five years my senior, so growing up in his shadow wasn’t without some hardship. My brother was a good kid, but like most “kids,” he had his quirks. My pragmatic parents dealt with these issues as most parents probably would do; strict guidelines where needed, a little tough love here and there, but always an eye towards supporting his happiness and success. I suppose they thought they had the whole parenting thing figured out. Until I came along that is, causing stress, worry, and grey hairs in all new ways.

As the newcomer, I got the expected recycled toys and hand-me-down clothes (plaid pants and all!) But I’m sure it didn’t take long for my parents to notice that the similarities between my brother and me stopped after our last name and that prior parenting styles might require a bit of a reboot. That was evidenced in our starkly different priorities, tastes, and eventual paths in life. Despite this, my brother and I always shared (and still do) an underlying level of respect for each other. Sure, we fought and disagreed and were territorial about our things, but at the end of the day, we always had each other’s back. We were a team, and happily we remain so today.

All in the Family

To a degree, the same familial bonds exist in the NAS; there may be multiple players with different desires, skills sets, and priorities, but there’s a sense of mutual respect in knowing we’re all part of the same aviation team. Along those same lines, the FAA realizes that a one-size-fits-all approach to managing safety and efficiency in the NAS has little chance of being effective. That has proven evident with the relative newcomer to the family, UAS, which brings a renewed level of excitement and entrepreneurial spirit to the aviation community, but whose vastly different operating requirements, performance limitations, and mission mindsets often contrast with the traditional mold of NAS operations. When you add in the current volume of UAS operations and their skyrocketing growth rate, there’s an even greater urgency to ensure we’re proactive with developing a successful plan to accommodate NAS users of all shapes and sizes.

So how do we build an air traffic system that accomplishes this challenging goal? That accounts for the operational needs of everything from a Boeing 787 transcontinental flight, to an AgEagle RX60 scouting for parasites in a Kansas wheat field? And that is consistent with the NAS’ existing regulatory framework, yet flexible enough to accommodate “who knows what” in the future? The adage about how to eat an elephant comes to mind here.

The good news is that the FAA’s hard work on developing a comprehensive rule to allow for the commercial use of small UAS (14 CFR part 107) is helping to lay the groundwork for a more inclusive type of system. When developing the rule, which became effective in August 2016, the FAA focused intensely on ways to not bottleneck or burden industry, but at the same time ensure that risk to others was properly mitigated. This essentially helped carve out some specific low-altitude airspace to allow greater freedom for both hobbyist and non-hobbyist types of operations, provided they follow the specified operating parameters (e.g., daytime operations, under 100 mph, within line of sight, etc.) and meet the necessary certification requirements. The rule also codified the FAA’s enforcement authority in part 101 by prohibiting model aircraft operators from endangering the safety of the NAS.

The rule also took into account the rapid evolution of small UAS technology by including a waiver provision for those who can provide an acceptable level of safety for activities that go beyond the basic requirements in part 107. For those operations outside uncontrolled airspace, an online authorization request is available for Class B, C, D, and certain parts of E airspace.


Not Your Father’s NAS

With the part 107 regulation under its belt, the FAA is now well-positioned to gather data and operational experience that can assist with the integration of higher risk operations. These first steps will likely bear the fruit needed for further integration and additional rulemaking, and will also contribute to the development of a UTM, or UAS traffic management system. UTM is widely regarded as a system that will rapidly and safely enable large-scale small UAS operations, together with other NAS users, in low altitude airspace.

The FAA’s leading partner in UTM development is NASA, which has a proven track record in autonomous systems and air traffic management. A joint effort between the two aeronautically aligned agencies was formally outlined in a Congressional mandate via Section 2208 of the FAA Extension Act of 2016. The Act stipulates that the FAA, in coordination with NASA, must develop a UTM system pilot program by early 2017 along with regular status and progress updates.

To establish the framework necessary to achieve those goals, the FAA and NASA have developed a Research Transition Team (RTT). The RTT lays out a clear plan of action for both FAA and NASA and serves as a basis for consistent communications and engagement with the broader public and UAS community. As its name suggests, the goal of the RTT will be to transition any technological outputs and prototype systems developed during the research process to the FAA for consideration and potential implementation. The RTT targets 2019 for this transfer to take place. NASA also plans to share results and specifications of the UTM research platform to industry stakeholders as appropriate along the way.

To help keep the team on track and focused on the appropriate areas and activities, the RTT is split into four subgroup areas of research: concepts, data, sense and avoid (SAA), and communications/navigation. In addition to their respective deliverables, the subgroups are also expected to perform interdependent research to provide each other with input and feedback in a collaborative fashion.

We Have the Technology

“There are a lot of moving targets, but our research goal is to have a holistic vision of UTM operations,” says Jarrett Larrow, an aerospace engineer with the FAA’s Flight Technologies and Procedures Division and co-coordinator of the SAA and Comm/Nav subgroups for FAA. With more industry-leaning and operator compliance objectives to sort out, Larrow’s teams are faced with a wide array of challenges, including the familiar “here today, gone tomorrow” lifecycle of many technological breakthroughs.

“Sense and avoid technologies are out there, but they’re evolving every day — getting smaller, better, and more capable,” says Larrow. Even defining what SAA is and should be capable of to support UTM is a concept the team is still wrestling with. Considered one of the linchpins for successful UTM, SAA technology represents the “eyes and ears” of UAS operators in what will likely be a predominantly autonomous system. “We need to be open-minded toward what solutions industry can propose to ensure they don’t hit other aircraft or structures,” says Larrow, hinting at the balance they must strike with not being overly prescriptive with an individual type of SAA technology or performance metric.

Larrow also cites the variability of operators and UAS platforms as another major challenge. “We have to eventually accommodate everything from garage-built models to complex package delivery aircraft, so we need to be sure there’s a good understanding of the required capabilities. We made a good first step with part 107.”

The good news for addressing these and the myriad other concerns is the vast number of partners from industry, government, and academia that are involved with developing an operational UTM. At last check, NASA had 65 partners listed on its website that provide vehicles or other subsystems to test UTM technologies. Among them are some names you might recognize: Amazon, Google, Lockheed Martin, and Uber (see the full list here:

“It’s this significant involvement with industry that helps set our RTT apart from others,” says Sherri Magyarits, an FAA engineering research psychologist and co-coordinator of the Concept & Use Cases UTM RTT Working Group. “These various partners and stakeholders are helping to define and validate use cases and operational needs, and are participating directly with flight tests and demonstrations.”

Case in point: NASA has already engaged with all six of the FAA’s UAS test ranges in Alaska, North Dakota, Nevada, New York, Texas, and Virginia to flight test UTM technology. Most recently, researchers at the Nevada test site flew — and tracked — five drones at the same time beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight from Reno-Stead Airport. Each drone accomplished a separate simulated task, including looking for a lost hiker, covering a sporting event, monitoring wildlife, and surveying environmental hazards.

These types of demonstrations are directly in line with the scalable platform model used by the RTT to gradually incorporate complexity into the testing environment. This “build a little, test a little” strategy moves UTM through a spectrum of low risk, low density remote operations, to higher density urban environments that require interaction with manned aircraft and employ more complex beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) techniques.

“Tests like these will help build the foundation for managing much greater amounts of drone traffic in the coming years,” said FAA Administrator Huerta at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Huerta further commented that these flight tests are something that “the FAA and industry both have key roles to play in the integration process. Neither of us is going to solve all of the challenges flying solo.”

Security Deposit

Moving forward with a comprehensive UTM plan must also take into consideration security concerns. The FAA is working concurrently with several government agencies and third party technology firms to develop methods of detecting, identifying, and mitigating unauthorized or “rogue” UAS operations in and around airports or other critical infrastructure. Prototype detection systems have been developed and successfully tested at several U.S. airports including Atlantic City, Denver, and JFK. Findings from these tests will help guide future standards for drone detection systems at airports nationwide and potentially feed into the construct of a larger overall UTM system.

This work is part of the FAA’s Pathfinder Program for UAS Detection at Airports and Critical Infrastructure and is also reinforced by the FAA Extension Act of 2016. Rob Pappas, Manager of the Program and Data Management Branch of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office explains that the while some Pathfinder research parallels and supports UTM efforts, much of their work is of a more immediate nature driven by environmental and economic security concerns with illicit UAS use. “There is a real need to accelerate methods that are directly focused on protecting national critical infrastructure and keeping the NAS operating safely and reliably,” says Pappas.

Out of Sight, But Not Out of Safety

So what will UTM ultimately look like? Will there be human intervention, or will it be strictly autonomous? And how will GA be able to stay actively informed of UAS whereabouts? Two notional scenarios NASA is exploring include a portable model that would move between geographical areas, and a persistent model that would provide continuous coverage for a specific area. Neither of these solutions would require human monitoring of every vehicle. Instead, operators would use data to make inputs only when initiating, continuing, or terminating a UAS flight. Since UAS operators would be inherently more reliant on a robust data exchange to authenticate themselves and declare their intentions, that same data can be used to better inform GA about precisely where and how these UAS will be operating.

“This type of system can provide finer precision of expected UAS operations,” says Larrow. “I can envision where there is more than just a generic charting symbol or a blanket 30-mile NOTAM warning GA pilots about UAS activity. Instead, there could be a one-mile corridor during a specific time frame identifying expected UAS traffic, along with the notional track.” According to Larrow, it would behoove UAS operators to use this additional information and their capability to share it since it could help to expedite their safe integration into the NAS. It would also behoove GA pilots to get involved early and make sure they have the capabilities to know where these operations are occurring.

UAS integration

Onward and Upward

While there are still many questions and concerns to address, overall progress on UTM remains on target. The FAA and NASA’s unique interaction with industry users and operators is a new paradigm for collaborative teamwork and is proving to be an important catalyst for the creative and forward-thinking ideas that will be required to move UTM from the drawing board to reality.

As with any new addition to a family, change is inevitable. But with the right mindset, this change can be a bridge to improvement and innovation and lead to a NAS that works better for everyone.

Tom Hoffmann is the managing editor of FAA Safety Briefing. He is a commercial pilot and holds an A&P certificate.

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