Drones are already very capable machines, but before they are unleashed over busy cities to police the streets, carry out deliveries and repair potholes, authorities need to have a plan in place for all that extra air traffic. NASA has been developing a solution to this over the past four years, and is now moving ahead with its final phase of testing where drones will put through their most complex demonstrations yet.
NASA's drone traffic management system is an effort to avoid Wild West-type situation where unmanned aircraft are free to fly wherever they want and bring some order to the order to the skies. The idea is to have corridors of airspace reserved for unmanned aircraft carrying out different tasks, below the altitude where general aviation begins at 500 ft (152 m).
You could see a low-speed slice of airspace reserved for hobbyists operating video drones, for example, and another channel set aside for faster-moving delivery drones. These boundaries could be enforced through dynamic geofencing software that prevents aircraft from flying off course or into restricted airspace.
Called the Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM) project, NASA began testing the system across different locations in the US in 2016 in collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration. Today it has announced the final phase of testing will be carried out at Texas A&M University and the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems in Las Vegas.
Here, NASA expects to carry out trials that show how the UTM can safely coordinate drone traffic in urban areas. This will involve drone flights over downtown Reno, Nevada, and over the campus at Texas A&M University, where technologies like obstacle avoidance, drone-to-drone communication and automated landing will be put through their paces. The results of the trials will then be used to develop rules and procedures for drone traffic in busy 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. "We are pleased at the plans by our partners in Nevada and Texas to conduct flight tests in a true urban environment with the support of the City of Reno and the City of Corpus Christi."
The Reno flights will take place between March and June, while the flights at Texas A&M University will be conducted during July and August.
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