NASA Reno

NASA’s tricky plans for air traffic control set to play out in Reno this spring

If you’re in Reno this spring, pay close attention for drone sightings overhead.

NASA has been developing models of air traffic control over the past few years. And this week, NASA announced plans for the final phase of its demonstrations.

NASA detailed plans for two sets of drone flights, the first done in partnership with the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems in Las Vegas, will take place in and around downtown Reno, Nevada between March and June. The second set will be hosted by the Lone Star UAS Center for Excellence & Innovation in Corpus Christi, Texas, and is scheduled to occur in Corpus Christi during July and August.

The Reno tests are perhaps the most important yet, set to proven that NASA’s plans related to UAS Traffic Management (UTM) can actually work — safely and effectively — in urban areas.

“This phase represents the most complicated demonstration of advanced UAS operating in a demanding urban environment that will have been tested to date,” said Ronald Johnson, NASA’s UTM project manager, in a prepared statement.

The outcomes of this final research phase will be presented to partners including the Federal Aviation Administration to help inform future rules, policies and traffic management procedures for operating drones safely over populated areas.

This round of demonstrations will focus specifically on:

Much of NASA’s work has revolved around a vision for a system where multiple service providers would allow drone operators to connect with each other through a common application interface. Users would digitally  send information about their flight destination and receive data of other drone’s flight information.

“What that does is gives the operator and support services complete awareness of all the other operations going on in the airspace at the same time,” said Parimal Kopardekar, manager of NASA’s Safe Autonomous Systems Operations project, in a former interview with The Drone Girl.

UTM has been one of the hottest buzzwords in the drone industry in 2019 (and 2018 too, let’s be fair).

A swath of industry leaders, not just NASA, have been working to test their own visions for drone air traffic control.

Altiscope, the unmanned traffic management group of A³ by Airbus (which is the innovation arm of aircraft builder Airbus), in the second half of last year released a massive document detailing their visions for UTM including stakeholder roles, airspace configuration, and system architecture. Like NASA’s plans, their white paper argued for a decentralized system of air traffic management, as opposed to the centralized system used in the U.S. for manned air traffic, where aircraft operators must talk only to a single entity, such as an assigned air traffic controller.

And on the East Coast, drone air traffic management is already being tested in upstate New York. The Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance is home to a 50-mile “drone corridor” that stretches between Syracuse and Griffiss International Airport in Rome, NY. The corridor has its own UTM system, powered by California-based drone startup AirMap, allowing traffic controllers management of airspace data, authorizations, and real-time air traffic. The New York drone corridor encompasses Griffiss International Airport, a NASA-affiliated drone testing facility and one of seven FAA designated testing sites for unmanned aerial vehicles.

Reno, though, has been quite a hotbed for drone research. The city is one of just 10 state, local and tribal governments selected by the FAA to be a part of its Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program.  It is also home to the headquarters of drone delivery company Flirtey.

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