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.
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.
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.