NASA’s Unmanned Aircraft System Flights in Nevada Boast Several Firsts

Yesterday, as part of its Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Traffic Management (UTM) program, NASA successfully completed drone flights taking place beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS).

For the flights, which took place at Reno-Stead Airport in Nevada, NASA collaborated with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as well as Aerovironment; the Alaska Center of UAS Integration; Drone Co-Habitation Services; Gryphon Sensors; the Lone Star UAS Center; Modern Technology Solutions Inc.; the Nevada Institute of Autonomous Systems; PrecisionHawk; Proxy Technologies; Silent Falcon; SmartC2; University of Nevada-Reno; and Unmanned Experts.

The pilots used the UTM research platform to gain information about the drones’ locations and proximity to other air traffic and hazards. UTM also informed other airspace users of potential hazards and conflicting operations that could affect their plans, according to a press release from NASA. NASA’s UTM platform is led by Parimal Kopardekar, manager of NASA’s Safe Autonomous Systems Operations project.

During the tests, NASA demonstrated UTM’s Technical Capability Level 2 by connecting drone-tracking systems to the research platform – providing alerts for approaching drones and piloted aircraft (live or simulated) and providing information about weather and other hazards.

During the testing, two drones flew BVLOS while two drones were operated within line of sight in the same airspace; the aircraft were separated by altitude.

The participants used various unmanned aircraft connected to the research platform to test UAS operations. Additional observers kept an eye on every vehicle to ensure safe operations, even when the drones were out of sight of the operator-in-command, says NASA.

When three of the drones flew close together, they were within view of their operators. Current FAA regulations require that drone operators are able to see any other aircraft in order to avoid them – which limits many potential applications of the technology, explains NASA.

According to NASA, the demo will help regulators and researchers assess the capabilities and procedures that could support BVLOS operations. The operators also used common data-exchange protocols – developed jointly by NASA, the FAA and industry – to flag their intended use of the airspace and stay aware of any real-time constraints.

With these tests now complete, NASA says it now will offer the capabilities to all FAA test sites for further validation and assessment. UTM’s Technical Capability Level Three testing is planned for January 2018 and will involve evaluating tracking procedures for managing cooperative and uncooperative drones to ensure collective safety of manned and unmanned operations over moderately populated areas. Technical Capability Level Four, planned for 2019, will involve higher-density urban areas for autonomous vehicles used for newsgathering and package delivery and will offer large-scale contingency mitigation, says NASA.

According to NASA, yesterday’s testing represented several firsts:

  • First UTM demo of multiple drones flying BVLOS of the pilot, with paths separated by altitude;
  • First demo of prioritizing airspace access for emergency-response drones through UTM airspace management, combined with notification of other UAS operators to clear the area;
  • First demo of system detect-and-alert capabilities, based on real data measurements, live radar and weather systems provided alerts to UTM operators. The team also introduced simulated weather events, such as high winds, to obtain operator feedback and further refine the capability.
  • Enhanced demonstration of automated alerts when aircraft are not conforming to their flight plans. This safety feature warns UAS operators of hazards, such as a drone’s flying away from its planned path or a loss of connection with an operator.
  • First demo of a dynamic re-routing capability that allows an unmanned, airborne vehicle to request flight plan changes. This function allows operators to update their missions in response to either changing airspace conditions or new mission objectives.

Previous flight tests by engineers from NASA’s Ames Research Center, located in California’s Silicon Valley, have expanded development and evaluated requirements needed to make low-altitude drone operations safe and efficient. In April, NASA and operators from several FAA drone test sites flew 22 UAS simultaneously to assess rural operations of the UTM platform.

Photo courtesy of NASA Ames/Dominic Hart: A PrecisionHawk pilot readies the aircraft for a test flight.

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