The UTM and why it is important

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One of the biggest barriers, one might say challenges, in the way of the growth of the commercial drone market is flying them safely in existing, crowded airspace. With hobby drones being cheap, easy to fly and available right now, you have drones flying in low-level airspace every day with close to zero legal regulations or even the makings of a regulatory framework.

With more than a million drones in the US alone, you have a collection of fully unmanned aircraft that are completely unmonitored. Right now, no one knows a drone is in the sky until they see it, leading to potential invasions of privacy or even more nefarious consequences, such as the recent attempted attack on the President of Venezuela.

Most companies investing in these new aircraft are concerned about how to regulate and create a safe environment for the new wave of air vehicles, whether they be hobby drones, air taxis, commercial drones or VTOL jets.

Not only do you personally need to worry about the number of new aircraft entering the airspace, regulatory bodies will also need to figure out a way of ensuring unmanned and manned aircraft can coexist safely in the skies.

Whilst this seems like common sense, we have already had a number of instances that are cause for serious concern. Last year, a small hobbyist drone collided with a Skyjet Beechcraft just two miles outside of Jean Lesage airport in Quebec City. Thankfully, the collision was not severe and nobody on board was injured. A drone also collided with a Robinson R22 in South Carolina in February, causing the aircraft to lose control and crash. This seems to be the first commercial aircraft crash resulting from drone interference. Thankfully both pilots escaped with no injuries.

There are countless other instances of drones colliding or almost colliding with passenger aircraft and helicopters. Whilst no fatalities or serious injuries have occurred, at least not yet, the frequency of these collisions or near misses is a warning sign. With very few if any rules in place about where drones can fly, it is only a matter of time before one of these collisions has more serious consequences.

These accidents are happening all over the world and regulators are trying to work as quickly as possible to find a solution.


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What is the UTM?

Those in the unmanned-aircraft markets are fully aware of the safety risks and many are brainstorming the best way to incorporate new VTOLs, drones and other unmanned aircraft into existing US airspace.

To achieve this, many private companies and organisations have started developing a Unmanned Traffic Management system (UTM) , an air-traffic management system for unmanned aircraft, to function alongside regulated ATM (air traffic management) systems.

The biggest UTM project right now is the collaborative effort between the FAA and NASA. For the present, though, both organisations are focussing exclusively on developing the UTM in Class G airspace (all airspace below 400 feet).

According to the FAA’s website, the key goal in developing a UTM is to: “Identify services, roles/responsibilities, information architecture, data exchange protocols, software functions, infrastructure, and performance requirements for enabling the management of low-altitude uncontrolled UAS operations.”

This UTM project is far along, with NASA having just completed technology capability level 3 (TCL 3) testing for its UTM. This leaves just one final round of TCL testing left, putting NASA ahead of schedule for its UTM development. It is hoping to send off its final integration requirements to the FAA in 2019 for finalisation.

Since the FAA partnered with NASA in January this year, it has opened the doors for many other drone and VTOL companies to aid in the research and development of the UTM. Uber, Aurora and GE are among some of the biggest names that are working with the FAA and NASA.


The breakdown

In the original announcement on its website, NASA gave a basic breakdown of what its UTM system would offer. It plans for the UTM system to cover airspace design, corridors, dynamic geofacing, severe weather and wind avoidance, congestion management, terrain avoidance, route planning and re-routing services.

This system would also not require humans to continuously monitor the air traffic. Rather, the system would flag specific situations that required human decision-making. The system would also be able to issue commands to autonomous aircraft regarding external factors such as weather conditions.

NASA plans on launching two basic forms of UTM. Firstly, a portable UTM system, which would move between locations to support specific operations in traffic-heavy locations. The second would be a permanent UTM system that would supply continuous coverage in one location.

A core component of the UTM will be a flight information management system (FIMS). This will provide situational awareness to all stakeholders and participants in the UTM programme, showing them what other aircraft are flying, weather reports etc.

It is not just NASA that has developed ideas for a complete UTM system. In 2016, before partnering with NASA, Uber revealed the basics of its own UTM concept. Importantly, it noted that NASA’s steps alone would not be enough to accommodate mass integration of unmanned aircraft.

In the UBER Elevate white paper posted in October 2016, the company outlined three potential developments that would help VTOLs operate effectively in urban environments and integrate them into the airspace. Firstly, an infrastructure would be required for unmanned VTOLs to interact voicelessly to ensure the aircraft know the locations of all other aircraft in the vicinity at all times.

The second would be a developed UTM system that would address higher-altitude flights that might intersect with general aviation aircraft. Lastly, VTOLs and drones need to integrate with low-altitude approaches and departures of commercial aircraft near metropolitan hubs.

NASA and its affiliates are not the only organisations on the case. Airbus, Google and Kitty Hawk also have opened their own UTM projects. A full list of the UTM projects can be found on unmannedairspace.info.

However, most of the companies and organisations on the list are working with NASA and the FAA in one form another.


Other efforts

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The FAA is not the only regulator working to incorporate unmanned aircraft into airspace. Across the Atlantic in Europe EASA is taking an incremental approach, passing new unmanned aircraft and drone legislation consistently to ensure that these aircraft can fly safely. However, as most of the drones and unmanned aircraft projects are in the US, the FAA is in a unique situation.

In February, EASA released a risk assessment for unmanned aircraft that highlighted many of the potential issues that were identified by the FAA. The report breaks down unmanned aircraft operations into three separate categories, open operations (low-risk with no approval needed), specific operation (commercial or personal flight requiring a risk assessment) and certified (flights that require certified pilots to operate the drones).

Despite the incremental drone regulations, EASA has not made that much of a distinction between drones and other low-flying unmanned aircraft in its regulations – sometimes using the term drone interchangeably with any unmanned aircraft.

There is precious little mention of VTOLs on the EASA website. This is notable due to the growing number of European cities that are welcoming flight tests for VTOLs that have autonomous aspirations. However, the European Commission has opened up the Urban Air Mobility initiative – a partnership to bring together cities, industry and investors to test and develop new forms or air mobility in cities.

Whilst NASA and the FAA are attempting to centralise the drive for new unmanned-aircraft regulations, the ideas pouring into the market right now are scattershot. Whilst regulatory bodies have been passing individual laws every so often – mostly around allowing commercial operations and beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) exemption in specific regions to allow companies to use drones for small utility missions.


What next?

So, the question is out -- the FAA and NASA are asking for feedback from anyone in the industry who has any idea about how best to get unmanned aircraft flying safely in the national airspace.

NASA is still interested in collaborating. Back in March, it reposted its request for UTM research partners, shortly before completing its TCL 3 testing.  It called for everyone from UAS manufacturers, through universities, to missions-planning software developers to submit questions, comments, suggestions, clarifications and any data that would help with the development of the UTM.

At the end of it all, NASA hopes to have a working UTM prototype and early documentation that would detail exactly how the low-altitude and UAS operations could operate in future.

Developing these ideas won’t only help the FAA and NASA, there is also money to be made. A report from market-research company Research and Markets in February estimated that the global UAS traffic management systems market is expected to be valued at around $3.62 billion by 2026.

Those interested in the project should email cal-utm-rfi@mail.nasa.gov with their questions, ideas or suggestions.