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Unmanned Traffic Management Pilot Program: FAA Drone Flight Testing Lands First Milestone

One drone can perform any number of important jobs. It can deliver a human organ to a hospital, for example, or fly along stretches of isolated pipeline in Texas to perform needed inspections. But add another drone or a manned aircraft to its airspace — or both — and suddenly drone operation gets a lot more complicated.

For unmanned aircrafts to fulfill their massive promise of accomplishing jobs great and small, there needs to be a system to manage the traffic in their airspace, in addition to the helicopters and passenger planes already there. For almost two years the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and a series of industry participants ­— including AiRXOS, part of GE Aviation — have been conducting tests to figure out how to best manage increased air traffic once commercial drones start buzzing in the sky. Just this month AiRXOS completed its real-world test flights in the FAA’s first phase of designing the air traffic management system of the future.

The AiRXOS team was selected to participate at three test sites, where they demonstrated their Air Mobility Platform — a cloud-based infrastructure and application platform for unmanned vehicle operations. For AiRXOS, the testing showed that its systems can operate with other commercial providers to coordinate and exchange data for safe flight operations.

The just-completed testing of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Traffic Management Pilot Program (UPP) took place at sites in Nevada, North Dakota and Virginia. Nevada itself had three testing locations for the UPP, focused on advanced airspace, drone and sensor technology. At the Northern Plains test site in North Dakota, program participants tested situational awareness, and flew drones both within visual line of sight and beyond visual line of sight. The industry considers unmanned aircraft flights beyond visual line of sight crucial to getting widespread drone use off the ground.

Top: Unmanned aerial vehicles will be able to perform important services, like inspecting pipelines or wind turbines and delivering organs for transplant. First, though, they need to be able to maneuver around one another in the air. Image credit: GE Reports. Above: The world’s first human organ for transplant was delivered by drone in Baltimore in April. Image credit: AiRXOS.

Meanwhile in Virginia, the mid-Atlantic test site focused on putting successfully tested drone systems through yet another series of workouts to help the FAA identify well-developed, existing components that can be rolled out in the near future. Across all three sites, the FAA wanted to learn more about how to safely keep aircraft apart from one another, how they can communicate between themselves, and how to handle weather situations. With systems used at all three locations, AiRXOS was the only organization to participate at more than one test site.

While drones have been successfully used by the U.S. military for nearly two decades, they’ve flown in environments where the military had command of the skies and could clear out other air traffic to accommodate unmanned aircraft. In day-to-day operations in the U.S., drones won’t have command of the skies; instead, they’ll need to be able to defer to manned craft.

Part of the FAA’s testing included collecting data to examine all sorts of drone interactions — i.e. how they alert and react to each other entering the same airspace and how they decide to defer to traffic taking off and landing — to inform further development of its unmanned traffic management system, or UTM. The UTM will determine how flights under 400 feet of altitude operate in an “ungoverned” space — that is, without active human oversight provided by the FAA’s air traffic management system. That system governs all flights above 400 feet, and separate work is being done on developing the framework for drones there as well. Also tested were connections to FAA-operated flight management servers and Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability services, which are needed to control the airspace below 400 feet.

About 90% of the 1 million drones in the U.S. today are high-priced toys sold at retail stores. If drones can get the OK for use in commercial situations — such as infrastructure inspection, agricultural operations and even package delivery — they could be the basis of a $46 billion business segment by 2026, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

In addition to FAA UTM testing, AiRXOS has been active in other testing programs, including one run by NASA in Reno, Nevada, and another by the FAA on collision avoidance in upstate New York.

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