Mar 11 2019

NASA Helps Make Urban Drone Use a Growing Reality

The development of drone flight guidelines and infrastructure is taking shape thanks to the space agency.

Drones are closer to becoming part of the traffic stream in urban environments thanks to NASA.

NASA recently selected two organizations, the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems in Las Vegas and the Lone Star UAS Center for Excellence & Innovation in Corpus Christi, Texas, to oversee demonstrations of NASA’s UAS Traffic Management (UTM) system. Residents of Reno and Corpus Christi can expect to see drones in the sky in the coming months as test flights commence.

NASA’s leadership in this initiative may seem surprising, given the agency’s close association with and focus on space travel. But the UTM project hearkens back to NASA’s early history and involvement in the development of aviation technology, dating back to the 1915 founding of NASA’s precursor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. 

The agency had a hand in developing much of the aviation technology in use by the airline industry today.

NASA’s Role in Urban Drone Development

These flight demonstrations represent the third phase of the UTM development process, with each phase testing increasingly complex operational environments, software, procedures and policy requirements. 

The first phase took place in 2015 and focused on rural drone operations and use cases, while the second phase in 2017 tested the viability of operating drones beyond the visual line of sight in sparsely populated areas.

“This phase represents the most complicated demonstration of advanced UAS operating in a demanding urban environment that will have been tested to date,” Ronald Johnson, NASA’s UTM project manager, said in a press release

VIDEO: Take a deep dive into the Interior Department’s use of drones. 

The Importance of Managing Drone Traffic

UTM is focused on developing technologies, roles, responsibilities and procedures to safely manage drones in populated areas. This initiative is part of NASA’s Airspace Operations and Safety Program, which seeks to develop higher levels of automation and autonomy across the aviation system. 

NASA has been working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration, other government agencies and drone manufacturers since 2015 to create a viable UTM system.

The Reno and Corpus Christ demonstrations will include the testing of key UTM technologies including the airspace regulator Flight Information Management System, the UAS Service Supplier interface for multiple independent UAS traffic management service providers, vehicle-integrated detect-and-avoid capabilities, vehicle-to-vehicle communication and collision avoidance, and automated safe landing technologies.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Find out how agencies use drones to achieve their missions. 

The Grand Challenge for Drones

As NASA works on the practical technologies and guidelines for enabling urban drone flight, it is also engaging private sector companies interested in building Urban Air Mobility (UAM) vehicles; developing key onboard systems, such as electric propulsion, detect and avoid and command and control; or providing air traffic management for UAM aircraft.

The agency recently held a summit in Seattle where it shared its plans to host a series of Grand Challenges aimed at the UAM community. 

The first of these challenges, set for late 2020, will involve the UAM industry in demonstrating the safe operation of a piloted or remotely piloted aircraft capable of carrying at least one adult passenger within a simulated, challenging urban environment. The event also included a request for information process to assess state of the art UAM hardware and systems from interested vendors and solicit guidance on how to optimize the Grand Challenge process for the best outcomes.

“The vision to revolutionize air mobility in and around metropolitan areas is one of the most exciting frontiers in modern aviation,” Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator of NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, said in November.

Naypong/Getty Images

Become an Insider

Unlock white papers, personalized recommendations and other premium content for an in-depth look at evolving IT