It is rare, but commendable, when the Congress and the Executive Branches both move in the same direction on a major aviation policy matter. The below two articles announce such confluence. Both are directed to solving one of the critical safety issues, AT control of UAS aircraft, the solution to which may both enhance safety and assure economical operations.
Sen. Hoeven (R-ND) announced that he had secured appropriations of nearly $15 million to continue efforts to integrate unmanned aerial systems (UAS) into the national airspace (NAS). Not surprisingly, the Senator from North Dakota included a requirement that the research dollars be spent at the six national test sites designated by the FAA, which includes the Northern Plains test site located in his state. Further, the bill, if enacted, designates that $5 million be used for research at North Dakota State University, a Center of Excellence.
Across the Mall, NASA announced that it “wants to create a system that would keep track of and deliver important information to operators of [unmanned aerial systems], such as which areas they should avoid, whether any other vehicles are trying to operate in the same airspace, and what the weather will be like in a given area.” The Administration recognizes that maintaining separation among drones and all other aircraft is one of the technical issues which compel the FAA to restrict the operations of UAS. It noted that while NextGen promises to advance the control of aircraft, its focus has been the airspace in which non-UAS aircraft have operated (GT 400’ to 35,000’). Part of the problem is that when all but large UASs are in within ATC purview (ground or space), the images displayed would be indistinguishable from birds, balloons or kites.
The Safe Autonomous Systems Operations project is examining how to provide some form of control for the UAS vehicles. NASA is exploring technologies like dynamic geo-fences, virtual barriers or other systems which communicate locational information on data links. If successful, risks of midair collisions will be mitigated and then the FAA can revise Part 107 and other rules to allow for greater operational freedom.
NASA projects that its UAS Traffic Management (UTM) system will provide “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.” The UAS operator/pilot will use the UTM unit to “to make strategic decisions related to initiation, continuation and termination of airspace operations [to] ensure that only authenticated UAS operate in the airspace.” The UTM will be either be a portable unit or a system linked to an area in which such AT advisories will be automatically displayed. Another option might using the existing network of cellular towers to create an infrastructure to support a controlled environment.
The NASA initiative sounds very promising, but time is of the essence. The Hoeven dollars are welcome, but will this research appropriation include NASA’s work? Hopefully some solution will be available soon and that technological change will alter the risk analyses which have compelled the FAA to impose restrictions which mitigate the potential for collisions.