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5 things that need to happen before UTM systems can lift off

UTM, short for UAS Traffic Management, is the three-letter acronym for a system of drone air traffic control. With more drones flying through the air, UTM systems can ensure drones are talking to each other and know where they’re flying to avoid creating too much drone traffic — and avoid drones crashing into each other.

Though UTM systems have been implemented in varying degrees in other countries, like Norway, federal UTM systems in the U.S. are still in the test phase.

In April 2017, the Federal Aviation Administration established a UTM Pilot Program. But the program really saw a lift-off in January 2019, when three of the FAA’s drone test sites were named test partners in what was “phase one” of the UTM Pilot Program. And last month, the U.S. saw a big breakthrough after the FAA announced it would move into “phase two” of its UTM Pilot Program. As part of phase two, two FAA test sites — Virginia Tech and the Mid Atlantic Aviation Partnership; and Griffiss International Airport — were selected to test how they could provide enterprise services that allow drones to better share of information about their flights, promoting cooperative separation and situational awareness for drone operators.

So what still needs to happen to progress UTM integration? German market research & analytics company Drone Industry Insights released a guide spelling out what they believe are the “5 key components for successful unmanned traffic integration”:

Software: While traditional manned air traffic control is managed by a human, it’s only fitting that unmanned traffic management would be managed by a robot. A number of companies like Airmap and Unifly are working on UTM software that would automate airspace planning.

Airmap has been at it for years. Since 2018, Airmap has been the UTM provider for the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance‘s 50-mile drone corridor, which stretches between Syracuse and Griffiss International Airport in Rome, NY.  Griffiss International Airport is part of phase two of the FAA’s UTM systems pilot program.

Communication: For drones to communicate with each other, a system of connectivity is crucial. That could come by way of 5G. 5G, which is essentially a significantly faster network than the current standard, would enable drones to transmit large amounts of data fast — and most importantly, in real-time.

Regulations: “It is a general trend that government regulations continue to lag behind drone technology innovation – the same undoubtedly goes for unmanned traffic management,” according to DII’s memo. In short, the tech is there, but regulations are not.

It’s not necessarily about UTM-specific regulations, either. It’s that drones are currently prevented from flying in use-cases in which they would use UTM to begin with (like flying beyond the operator’s visual line of sight for package deliveries).

There is some silver lining. Two drone delivery companies, UPS Flight Forward and Wing, have received Part 135 certificates, which permit them to deliver beyond the line of sight.  That certification is crucial in increasing the scope of drone deliveries, beyond just one-off tests.

Stakeholder buy-in: In order for UTM to work, people actually have to use it. And DII says the response has been lukewarm.

“So far, participation in existing UTM systems has been partial at best,” DII’s reported stated. “Companies report not using UTM systems for several reasons: from not considering them comprehensive enough, to not being offered enough coverage, or even simply not feeling that their missions are complex enough to require UTM software.”

There are a number of large companies that have been heavily involved in UTM.

ANRA, which is an official NASA collaborator for their UTM solution , and designed a DroneUSS UTM platform for both the Nevada UAS Test Site and the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, said it has been working alongside big players like Wing, AiRXOS a GE Company, AirMap and Uber. Wing has launched its own app called OpenSky which pilots in some regions can use to manage flights.

But the challenge, DII said, is getting regular people — not just big companies like Wing and Uber — to participate in UTM.

“This creates a Catch-22 situation with UTM systems – not many people use them because they feel that there is not a critical mass on these systems enough to justify participation,” DII’s report stated.

DJI, the world’s largest drone company, has been taking its own strides to encourage user adoption. In 2017, DJI launched Aeroscope, a Remote ID system which experts largely agree will be a key component of future UTM systems.

Remote Identification: And on that note, Remote ID is one of the biggest components in driving UTM systems. Remote ID would essentially provide drones with electronic license plates. Being equipped with that remote identification system is a building block in order for drones to share their position data with others

The FAA announced a controversial proposal for Remote ID at the end of December. It’s unlikely to be a final rule (and the public comment period generated more than 10,000 comments, most of which came from hobby pilots).

Earlier this month, the FAA announced a group of eight companies including Airbus, Airmap, Amazon and Wing that would together weigh in on the technological requirements around implementing an electronic license plate system for drones. 

And the FAA continues to dig deep in advancing UTM.

Earlier this month, NUAIR announced it was awarded a $1.6 million contract by the FAA specifically to UTM at its test site. The money would be spent to lead a team of five commercial companies in the development of a single, integrated UTM platform with a specific focus on contingency management. In other words, the focus is on safety, with the platform containing features like protection protocols and situational awareness; and alerting operators of faults, failures, and severe weather).

Dr. Sean Calhoun, Managing Director of CAL Analytics — the group leading the team — called the contingency management approach “a critical, but often overlooked, step to achieve routine commercial drone operations.”

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