Managing the coming tidal wave of drones

Syracuse company has created an experimental operations center

In an air traffic operations center in Syracuse, New York, airspace managers monitor screens that show simulated and sometimes live drone traffic from a nearby test range. The screens also show weather conditions, any cybersecurity concerns and airspace restrictions.

This is the Advanced Air Mobility Operations Center, and it is entirely experimental. It’s a potential precursor to similar centers that would be set up around the country to manage a predicted tidal wave of drone traffic and, soon, air taxis too. The Syracuse company ResilienX continues to develop the center’s software and processes with funding from the Air Force, FAA and NASA.

Those I spoke with were careful not to call the people at the screens “controllers.” The term “airspace managers” distinguishes them from the air traffic controllers in the nearby tower at Syracuse Hancock International Airport.

ResilienX is working on the center with NUAIR, short for Northeast Uncrewed Aerial Systems Airspace Integration Research Alliance. The New York state-funded group manages FAA’s drone test site near Syracuse, an 80-kilometer-long range where NUAIR says it has conducted 6,000 drone flights. Data from this range is fed to the experimental operations center.

ReslienX President Andrew Carter tells me the center will show how the skies can be kept safe, especially once drones and air taxis start flying autonomously and beyond the visual line of sight of those who are responsible for them.

Of concern right now are the drones: “We want to get to the point where one person can monitor more than a single drone,” Carter says.

Knowing where these drones are at all times will require various sensors and software products to work together seamlessly.

“People are telling us they don’t want to go out there and pick these products and figure out how to make them work together,” he says. So ResilienX aims to provide them with a software and hardware package called Advanced Air Mobility OptiX, which it describes as a “turnkey digital infrastructure for scaled autonomy.”

ResilienX is building on existing concepts, such as the approach developed under NASA’s now-concluded UTM project, short for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management, carried out together with FAA. The UTM strategy calls for drones above a certain size to broadcast a digital identification code.

As far as division of labor, Carter anticipates centers like the experimental one in Syracuse remaining focused on beyond-visual-line-of-sight flights, or BVLOS (pronounced bee-vlos). FAA has a separate drone registration effort, the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability, or LAANC, that will continue to focus on line-of-sight operations and require operators to register their routes.

Carter says that at first, OptiX is likely to be used at operations centers at vertiports and general aviation fixed-base operator facilities that provide services to private and chartered aircraft, or at operations centers run by package delivery companies.

He says interaction with air traffic controllers is still “a bit of a question mark” because FAA “doesn’t want to give out their live data yet, and they don’t want new feeds into ATC towers.”

But the company has had more luck with the Air Force’s AFWERX program. “The USAF wants the [air traffic] data and can more easily share their data, once we get through their cybersecurity onboarding,” Carter says.

The Air Force is eager to see new airspace technologies “integrated into our legacy systems,” Darshan Divakaran, head of AFWERX airspace innovation and partnerships, tells me.

“We already have challenges, delays, in our current system,” Divakaran says. “Autonomy is the real question here, and what level of autonomy is doable, and we are still working with FAA and other agencies to figure this out. Maybe there’s a human in the loop in some cases, and maybe there isn’t.”

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Managing the coming tidal wave of drones