[Avionics Today 02-25-2016] As the FAA prepares to launch an Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) to develop performance-based standards for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) flight operations, research and development on a key technology is occurring behind the scenes at the various UAS test sites throughout the U.S. The widespread use and adoption of operational intelligence and unmanned traffic management could be a key factor to enabling the future expanded safe integration of UAS operations into commercial airspace.
Simulyze unmanned operational intelligence tool. Photo: Simulyze.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is leading the charge in the research and development of a low altitude UAS Traffic Management (UTM) system. NASA's research is currently focusing on two types of future UTM systems: a portable one capable of moving between geographic areas, and a persistent system capable of supporting low altitude operations with continuous coverage for a specific area.
The UTM system would also enable low-altitude airspace operations by providing services such as airspace design, corridors, dynamic geo-fencing, severe weather and wind avoidance, congestion management, terrain avoidance, route planning and re-routing, separation management, sequencing and spacing, and contingency management. In August 2015, NASA concluded Technology Capability Level 1 (TCL) testing on a UTM concept that addressed UAS operations for agriculture, firefighting and infrastructure monitoring with a focus on geo-fencing, altitude and scheduling UAS trajectories and flights, which proved the future UTM concept is viable. In October this year, the agency will perform TCL2 testing of the same concept with a focus on beyond line of sight operations.
Simulyze is one company that is working both with NASA and the FAA to help expand commercial UAS operations with a focus on safety and preventing UAS-UAS as well as UAS-manned aircraft collisions. Over the last 15 years, Simulyze's operational intelligence platform, Flight Control, has provided comprehensive air, land and sea visualization tools for the U.S. military and intelligence community. Now, the company has launched Mission Insight, to provide the type of situational awareness and data about airspace conditions for UAS, much in the way current ATM tools provide similar information for manned aircraft operations.
"We have worked with several of the UAS test sites, have used the system to integrate their customer aircraft into the airspace collect the flight data and automate some of the reports they have to provide to the FAA," Simulyze President and CEO Kevin Gallagher told Avionics Magazine.
Gallagher said the goal is to provide the same type of data and information for UAS operators that current ATM technology provides for manned aircraft operators.
"We are starting to work with some of the commercial entities that have obtained some of the 333 exemptions, and we have found that the commercial UAS operator needs to know where all the other aircraft in the area are, you need to keep track of the weather, winds on the ground, winds aloft, and more. There’s a lot that goes into flying a UAS, and if you are really trying to expand operations, you really do need a capability to pull all that data together, understand your operations," said Gallagher.
Since introducing its UAS registration process in December, the FAA has reported that more than 370,000 small UAS have been registered for use in the National Airspace System. The agency has also granted a total of 3,517 total Section 333 exemptions, to permit the operation of UAS for commercial applications. While the FAA’s current regulations greatly limit the altitudes at which UAS can be recreationally or commercially operated, those UAS are joining a NAS that already features 87,000 manned flights daily with 5,000 airplanes in the airspace at any given time.
That’s where Gallagher believes operational intelligence can make a major difference: to interpret, standardize and incorporate data from a variety of sources, such as weather information, GPS tracking, radar intelligence and present it in a common operating picture for UAS operations.
“One of the concepts of the NASA UTM is to put that data into a central repository and make it available to all UAS operators within a certain area, as well as the manned aircraft operations in that area so that pilots of each type aircraft can safely operate around each other,” said Gallagher.
“There’s a lot of data that you can gather to discover how the UAS is behaving in certain environments, how is it interacting with other aircraft, and how is it performing its mission. This operational intelligence area is something that we think is key to help move this commercial UAS industry forward,” he added.
The next key commercial UAS regulatory milestones for the FAA are to include the new ARC’s report on performance-based standards scheduled for completion in April and the release of official small UAS regulations expected this summer.