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NASA UTM 2015: The Next Era of Aviation
The NASA Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Traffic Management Convention was held July 28-30.
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This image shows applications for small UAV, including agriculture, surveillance, photo, search and rescue, and cargo delivery.
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Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Traffic Management (UTM)
Enabling Civilian Low-Altitude Airspace and Unmanned Aircraft System Operations

What is the problem?
Many beneficial civilian applications of UAS have been proposed, from goods delivery and infrastructure surveillance, to search and rescue, and agricultural monitoring. Currently, there is no established infrastructure to enable and safely manage the widespread use of low-altitude airspace and UAS operations, regardless of the type of UAS. A UAS traffic management (UTM) system for low-altitude airspace may be needed, perhaps leveraging concepts from the system of roads, lanes, stop signs, rules and lights that govern vehicles on the ground today, whether the vehicles are driven by humans or are automated.

What system technologies is NASA exploring?
Building on its legacy of work in air traffic management for crewed aircraft, NASA is researching prototype technologies for a UAS Traffic Management (UTM) system that could develop airspace integration requirements for enabling safe, efficient low-altitude operations.

While incorporating lessons learned from the today's well-established air traffic management system, which was a response that grew out of a mid-air collision over the Grand Canyon in the early days of commercial aviation, the UTM system would enable safe and efficient low-altitude airspace operations by providing services such as airspace design, corridors, dynamic geofencing, severe weather and wind avoidance, congestion management, terrain avoidance, route planning and re-routing, separation management, sequencing and spacing, and contingency management.

One of the attributes of the UTM system is that it would not require human operators to monitor every vehicle continuously. The system could provide to human managers the data to make strategic decisions related to initiation, continuation, and termination of airspace operations. This approach would ensure that only authenticated UAS could operate in the airspace. In its most mature form, the UTM system could be developed using autonomicity characteristics that include self-configuration, self-optimization and self-protection. The self-configuration aspect could determine whether the operations should continue given the current and/or predicted wind/weather conditions.

NASA envisions concepts for two types of possible UTM systems. The first type would be a Portable UTM system, which would move from between geographical areas and support operations such as precision agriculture and disaster relief. The second type of system would be a Persistent UTM system, which would support low-altitude operations and provide continuous coverage for a geographical area. Either system would require persistent communication, navigation, and surveillance (CNS) coverage to track, ensure, and monitor conformance.

What is NASA doing to test the technologies?
NASA's near-term goal is the development and demonstration of a possible future UTM system that could safely enable low-altitude airspace and UAS operations. Working alongside many committed government, industry and academic partners, NASA is leading the research, development and testing that is taking place in a series of activities called "Technology Capability Levels (TCL)", each increasing in complexity.

UTM TCL1 concluded field testing in August 2015 and is undergoing additional testing at an FAA site. Technologies in this activity addressed operations for agriculture, firefighting and infrastructure monitoring, with a focus on geofencing, altitude "rules of the road" and scheduling of vehicle trajectories.

UTM TCL2, scheduled for October 2016, will leverage TCL1 results and focus on beyond-visual line-of-sight operations in sparsely populated areas. Researchers will test technologies that allow dynamic adjustments to availability of airspace and contingency management.

UTM TCL3, scheduled for January 2018, will leverage TCL2 results and focus on testing technologies that maintain safe spacing between cooperative (responsive) and non-cooperative (non-responsive) UAS over moderately populated areas.

UTM TCL4, with dates to be determined, will leverage TCL3 results and focus on UAS operations in higher-density urban areas for tasks such as news gathering and package delivery. It will also test technologies that could be used to manage large-scale contingencies.

NASA's UTM technologies research and development is taking place in collaboration with the FAA. Results of research in the form of airspace integration requirements are expected to be transferred from NASA to the FAA in 2019 for their further testing.

This graphic shows several types of unmanned aircraft systems flying between 200 and 500 feet. Below 200 feet shows skyscrapers, communication towers, houses, and a road. Above 500 feet shows a larger aircraft.
NASA's concept for a possible UTM system would safely manage diverse UAS operations in the airspace above buildings and below crewed aircraft operations in suburban and urban areas.

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Last Updated: December 1, 2015