Look: NASA’s UTM Project Takes First Flight Test

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Multiple drones take flight in the skyline of Reno downtown in Nevada this week — as NASA fulfills its promise to finally launch the final stage of a four-year-long effort of developing a national traffic management system for drones. This is also the first time for the said space agency to unveil a series of simulations testing with an ultimate goal to commercialize thousands of small unmanned aircraft in delivering services.

Since 2015, NASA has been studying and planning to build a national system to manage low-altitude air traffic. This year, NASA disclosed details regarding the projects and administering series flight tests in Reno Nevada and Corpus Christi, Texas.

Experts predicted that hundreds of thousands of commercial drones would be listed for use in the U.S by 2020 — together with two million intended for recreation. NASA’s primary goal is to conduct research or build a systematize plan that will manage this future drone traffic. 

Now, researchers are designing as well as testing basic principles and technologies as part of the program that could be used in such a system. And just this week, NASA was able to provide the public a few glimpses of the project’s final stage — the launching of flight tests that will help researchers understand what other factors to consider in flying these drones in a complex environment.

The name of the research project is UTM or Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management led by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. UTM, as defined in NASA’s online journal, is a system that includes software, vehicle technologies, personnel, rules, and other elements. It can be used to provide information to drones, their pilots, and organizations managing the exchange of information such as notifications about airspace condition like weather forecast and details about other flights in the region.

Aside from the qualities mentioned above, UTM also provides details on how to safely enable single or multiple drones operations — either within visual line of sight of the pilot or beyond visible line of sight.

NASA’s UTM project would not be possible without the help of its partners, including the Federal Aviation Administration, other Federal Agencies, and some academic and commercial partners. The goal here is to know what can be done to make UAS operations or drone flights possible in low-altitude airspace.

Why NASA decides to take on the challenge of operating drones?

Research at NASA creates a permanent transformation in the airspace system to support new vehicles and provide a safe and secure flight to every human. According to NASA TV online journal, these drones will have significant impacts on urban areas and perform jobs too risky for humans to do.

Applications of these high-technologies include assisting emergency responders, delivering packages, monitoring of traffic, inspecting power lines, bridges, other infrastructures, and more. With the creation of the drone traffic management system, it will support a growing economy of various services in the cities as made possible by drones.

All drones used in the flight tests have been inspected to check if they are ready to fly. They are equipped with flight paths that separate them in the air and an ‘onboard technology’ to ensure they stay in their assigned range and avoid contact with other drones. Also, all traffic will be routed around the area when drones are flying; vehicles, bikes, and pedestrians will not cross paths with these commercialized aircraft.

Moreover, NASA guarantees safety precautions to protect the community when these drones fly in the area. This project, as confirmed by the space agency, will not interfere with commercial or general aviation flights in the area.

The UAS flight tests are below 400 feet — conforming to the FAA’s test approval. Also, the tests sites are equipped with ground radar stations that would detect crewed aircraft once it enters the testing area. If adverse conditions like strong winds or storms, all drones will not take its flight.

Visual observers and safety pilots also make sure the UAS perform well as expected. These pilots can take control of the drones if problems occur with the vehicle or the primary pilot.

For example, if communication or link to the primary pilot is lost, the safety pilot equipped with knowledge and skills to control the situation can maneuver — providing an additional layer of safety. The system is being tested with the help of 36 private partners, including drone manufacturers, operators, software developers, and other third-party service providers.

For now, NASA and other directors of its aeronautics, hope that further ‘test’ in Reno will be successful to proceed with its innovative plan.

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