Test time for drone traffic management

A future of hundreds of thousands of drones navigating low-altitude airspace appears to be inevitable, and that presents a serious safety question: How to prevent collisions among them?

FAA and NASA, the agency’s technology partner, have been busy trying to define standards for managing these aircraft in the airspace not under the purview of FAA’s air traffic control system, meaning areas under 400 feet in altitude, away from airports or other protected sites and beyond the drone operator’s line of sight. 

FAA and NASA are set to begin the next phase of their Unmanned Traffic Management field test program with a March 14 informational event in Washington, D.C., where FAA and NASA will provide in-person and online participants with a “walkthrough of project objectives.”

The key, says FAA, will be establishing a method for information sharing and data exchanges among various drone operators. Drones will need to automatically communicate with one another to avoid collisions, and if there were an incident of some kind, FAA and law enforcement agencies must have the ability to learn who was operating the drone or drones. 

Overall, FAA is after what it calls a “distributed information network” that will put more responsibility in the hands of drone operators compared to the two-way communications between air traffic controllers and pilots of conventional aircraft. Drone operators will be “responsible for managing their own operations safely within these constraints without receiving ATC services from FAA,” the agency explained in its final report on phase two field testing conducted in 2020. 

In the new phase, FAA and NASA will be “conducting flight test activities to validate industry standards and maturation of [traffic management] capabilities, including security of information exchanges,” FAA said in prepared statement. Plans call for operating “multiple drone flights in realistic test scenarios to learn more about how to manage drone traffic in varying environments.”

FAA will set standards and ground rules, and then it will be up to the drone operators and service providers to operate the new technologies to deconflict flight paths. A central component, FAA says, will be Remote ID, basically an electronic license plate for drones that will identify their operators.

FAA has a separate program in place to give commercial and recreational drone pilots access to airspace controlled by FAA. Since 2018, FAA has used an automated system (replacing a manual system) to enable drone pilots to request permission to operate their aircraft below 400 feet in this controlled airspace. FAA in February announced it had issued its millionth airspace authorization for a drone pilot operating in controlled airspace. 

The more challenging element of drone traffic management is in airspace not controlled by FAA, since numerous operators could be flying drones in very close proximity to one another. 

About Aaron Karp

Aaron is a contributing editor to the Aviation Week Network and has covered the aviation business for 20 years. He was previously managing editor of Air Cargo World and editor-in-chief of Aviation Daily.

Test time for drone traffic management