ATM Modernization, Regulation, Unmanned

New Report Finds Problems with FAA Unmanned Traffic Management Effort

By Kelsey Reichmann | February 2, 2021
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An AirMap UTM Dashboard at Geneva Airport monitoring manned and unmanned traffic. Photo: AirMap

A Jan. 28 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report said the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) traffic management ecosystem (UTM) lacks information on how progress is measured and adequate communication with stakeholders involved in advancing UAS implementation.

According to the GAO report, the FAA has provided limited information on how UTM will ultimately come together which is limiting the ability of stakeholders to make informed decisions.

“These stakeholders said that not having this information makes it difficult for them to plan for the future and conduct additional testing, which ultimately could increase the time needed to bring certain services to market and implement UTM,” the report states.

The FAA has been working to develop UTM in collaboration with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) since 2015. In 2018 the FAA proposed a broad concept of operations for UTM.

“There is broad consensus among FAA, NASA, and UAS stakeholders that developing and deploying a UTM ecosystem would be a complex undertaking primarily because UTM requires the establishment of regulatory frameworks and the development of operating rules and performance requirements,” the report states. “Further contributing to the complexity, the roles, responsibilities, and activities that will collectively make up the UTM ecosystem are divided among various actors.”

The concept of operations says FAA will establish rules with the help of research from NASA and operators will be responsible for coordination, execution, and management within the UTM system. According to the report, the FAA expects to use UAS Service Suppliers to exchange data between the FAA and UAS operators within this system.

An updated concept of operations is set to be released in 2021 reflecting new input from the UAS industry and public stakeholders.

In response to the report, the FAA countered that they engage stakeholders however concurred that they could streamline communications into a central location so they would be easier to access.

The report also said the FAA needs to set performance measures to strengthen the UTM implementation plan.

“Identifying performance goals and related measures as FAA develops the UTM implementation plan could help FAA, NASA, and industry ensure that the steps identified in the plan align to support implementation,” the report states. “Performance measurement also gives managers crucial information to identify gaps in program performance and plan any needed improvements. Additionally, goals and measures could signal industry what FAA will ultimately consider needed before allowing widespread integration of UTM into the national airspace system, thereby improving transparency.”

The FAA did not concur with the second recommendation from the report which recommends setting performance-based goals in the UTM implementation plan. The FAA is required to create the implementation plan by the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, however, they say this does not require them to include performance measures and goals. The FAA says this would delay the completion of the plan and instead will consider alternative ways to set these goals.

The UTM system is complex and still faces a variety of challenges to development and implementation.

Recent regulatory efforts from the FAA propose network-based UAS solutions for UTM. In December 2020, the FAA released its remote identification (Remote ID) rulings where it limited network-based Remote ID systems in favor of broadcast systems. The FAA cited privacy and security concerns for the exclusion of network Remote ID which are also cited in the GAO report as impediments to UTM implementation.

“According to UAS stakeholders and FAA, there are also privacy concerns related to UTM,” the report states. “For example, representatives from several UAS stakeholder groups stated that UTM could potentially allow competing business interests to have access to proprietary information, such as the number of deliveries and routes. Additionally, a representative of another UAS stakeholder group expressed privacy-related concerns about UTM, such as how personally identifiable information will be handled, including the information about an operator that is available to members of the public and to law enforcement.”

There are also technology challenges still facing UTM like detect and avoid (DAA) and command and control (C2) systems, the report states.

DAA operating requirements will be key to implementing UTM because of its collision avoidance maneuvering capabilities.

“FAA stated that it is researching specific challenges related to DAA, including assessing DAA multi-sensor use and other technologies and determining the minimum amount of information required for collision avoidance maneuvering,” the report states. “FAA officials told us in September 2020, that there are several efforts under way within standards bodies to develop industry standards for DAA, and FAA is funding research into various aspects of minimum performance requirements.”

The C2 capabilities will be critical because they will allow operators to maintain control over UAS.

“According to FAA, some specific challenges associated with UAS command and control include developing requirements for radio spectrum, which requires working with the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and determining which of many possible network approaches (terrestrial, satellite-based, or airborne radios) should be used to sustain the UAS command and control system,” the report states.

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