FAA, NASA, Amazon, Boeing, GE, and Google working together on Drone Air Traffic Management

Commercial drones in the U.S. are expected to begin limited package deliveries within months, according to federal regulators and industry officials.

According to a Federal Aviation Association official at the FAA Symposium, there are 10 times more drones registered in the US than manned aircraft.

FAA’s websit describes the Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM)

The FAA, NASA, other federal partner agencies, and industry are collaboratively exploring concepts of operation, data exchange requirements, and a supporting framework to enable multiple beyond visual line-of-sight UAS operations at low altitudes (under 400 ft above ground level (AGL)) in airspace where FAA air traffic services are not provided.

UTM is a “traffic management” ecosystem for uncontrolled operations that is separate but complementary to the FAA’s Air Traffic Management (ATM) system. UTM development will ultimately 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.

A Research Transition Team (RTT) has been established between the FAA, NASA and industry to coordinate the UTM initiative.

Amazon, Boeing, GE, and Google announced that they are ready to start working on the development of a private Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system for drones. Testing in conjunction with NASA is supposed to start in the next three months. The system will enable swarms of drones to fly a couple of hundred feet above the ground using cellular and web applications to avoid collisions and allow for remote tracking.

Gur Kimchi, vice president of Amazon Prime Air said that for many of the engineering challenges, “the technology to do this is basically off the shelf,” and that it could “take a year or two” to solve the biggest challenges of creating a drone air traffic management system. Using similar technology as is used in self-driving cars, drones would be able to resolve conflicting flight paths with the help of the UTM, leaving no work to be done for human air traffic controllers.

The need for a drone UTM is rising as the number of drones is growing rapidly. Currently, more than one million drones are registered with the FAA for recreational use. A number that is expected to grow exponentially over the next few years. On the commercial side, around 70,000 have been registered by some 1,500 professional drone pilots and companies.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced Tuesday it will expand testing of a prototype system for automatically processing requests from drone operators to fly near airports. The agency will roll out the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability at about 300 air traffic facilities by mid-September, said FAA Administrator Dan Elwell at the annual UAS Symposium.

Under current FAA regulations, drone pilots only can fly at altitudes below 400 feet, and their vehicles must remain in line of sight. They’re prohibited from flying over people, which rules out most urban areas, and from flying within five miles of an airport without notifying air traffic control.

That five-mile berth becomes fairly restrictive given the density of airports in certain parts of the country, and the FAA’s current system for authorizing flight plans can take up to 90 days. Once deployed, LAANC would drastically reduce the waiting time.

Using the system, drone pilots can apply for waivers through a mobile app and get them approved almost immediately. The system also provides pilots with maps detailing flight restrictions in certain areas and gives air traffic controllers a real-time view where drones are operating.

FAA plans to kick off the nationwide beta test on April 30 and complete the rollout by Sept. 30. The agency has already struck deals with four companies—AirMap, Google’s Project Wing, Rockwell Collins and Skyward—to provide LAANC services, but groups can apply to join the program until a May 16.

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