Drone Infrastructure Flying Through Critical Urban Testing

Aug 1, 2019
Originally published on August 2, 2019 6:10 am

These days, drones are everywhere--from the ones you can buy at your local Costco to news drones giving birds' eye views of sporting events. Soon, you'll even be able to get your Amazon deliveries with the company's "Prime Air" drone fleet.

So, how are we going to stop all of these flying machines from flying into each other? That's what I'm here to find out.

I'm standing in the old historic post office building in downtown Reno. A West Elm department store is now taking up the first floor, but upstairs, there's a makeshift command center.

It's the drone world's version of an air traffic control tower.

"It's a secure facility. You can't get up there unless you have secure access," says Chris Walach. He's the head of the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems, an official drone testing partner with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Today, he's leading a variety of drone test flight missions.

"So on this display here, this is the picture of the drone radar. So it picks up all the drones that are flying here," he says, pointing to a large monitor, one of several scattered throughout this room.

Drone users, including hobbyists, already have an air traffic control system, but it's limited. You have to see your drone at all times, can only operate it during daylight and not over people.

Walach and his team are working with NASA, the FAA and private industry to develop a new platform to allow pilots to fly their drones out of their line of sight, autonomously. That's something the Amazons of the world want.

Walach tells me this is the first time this system has been tested in urban environments, which he says is a big deal.

"And we have multiple drones stacked up on different airspace segments, flying on top of each other in their own designated airspace," he says.

In one test, a drone takes off from the roof of Reno City Hall and lands on a neighboring parking garage. In another, multiple drones fly simultaneously. The entire time, these machines are communicating back and forth with the system automatically.

"This is kind of the turning point for evolving the air traffic control network," Walach says.

This project, known as the UTM system, will be for autonomous drones used by the military, government and businesses. It began in 2015 and is led by NASA.

"Right now, the idea is that pilots would upload a proposed flight plan, and as many pilots do this, the automatic system that we're developing will take in those proposed flight plans and make sure they don't conflict with anybody," says Ron Johnson, NASA project manager.

NASA estimates that 700,000 drones will be in the airspace by next year. Johnson says that's just too many for the FAA's current traffic management system to handle. He says the UTM system will be more automated, and offer better insights.

"The system will be able to provide information about who is flying, so the 'John Q. Publics' out there, they see a drone flying, the idea is that they would be able to go to an app or something like that, punch in some kind of information, where they're located, what's going on right now, and they would be able to see a list of who's drone that is," he says.

That sounds like fun, but the bottom line of this project is safety. Jay Merkle is with the FAA arm of the UTM project.

"We're about to introduce a notice of proposed rulemaking to require all drones to have essentially a license plate number that local law enforcement could look up your license plate, determine who the operator is, and get in contact with that person quickly," Merkle says.

He says that's to make sure people aren't flying drones where they shouldn't be. And if they are, they can be found quickly. This UTM system will eventually connect to other platforms, giving air traffic controllers a full picture of what's in the airspace.

As automated drones take to the skies beyond where pilots can see, Merkle says they need to be able to have some way to avoid running into buildings, power lines, or other drones.

"Increasingly, we're looking at what technologies can replace the human doing that 'see and avoid' function, and ensure that that drone can stay out of the way of manned aircraft," he says.

NASA is scheduled to finish developing the UTM platform later this year, after more urban testing. The system will then go to the FAA for implementation, which Merkle says will get rolled out over time.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

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