UTM: What is it and why should you care?

Legislation and infrastructure are two of the biggest hurdles facing the unmanned aircraft industry. An Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system is an important solution. With nearly 30 years of experience in the Aviation sector over his career at the Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Office, Jim Williams is an important influencer in the drone space.

Written by guest author Jim Williams, founder and President of JHW Unmanned Solutions.

What is the UTM? Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Traffic Management (UTM) is a concept created by NASA to safely integrate manned and unmanned aircraft into low altitude airspace.  If you are interested in the details you can take a look at NASA’s excellent website for UTM:  NASA UTM Home Page.  NASA’s goal for UTM is “Enabling Civilian Low-Altitude Airspace and Unmanned Aircraft System Operations”.  They are using lessons learned from previous research projects where they developed software to help improve the efficiency and safety of terminal area operations at major airports and applying it to low altitude unmanned aircraft operations.  They are building a system to allow operators like Amazon, Google, and now Uber to connect into a central coordinating service to manage unmanned operations at low altitudes (probably no higher than 400 feet above the ground).  Uber is included in the conversation because they plan to operate their urban mobility aircraft without a pilot on board.  Their business model is to have their air taxi aircraft operate autonomously similar to the way Amazon plans to operate their delivery aircraft.

Why is this capability needed?  Currently the FAA only manages airspace below 400’ near large airports which leaves the vast majority of the country’s airspace below 1200’ as uncontrolled.  Managed airspace is much easier for unmanned aircraft operations since the air traffic service provider can maintain safe separation between aircraft.  Low altitude uncontrolled airspace safety depends on manned aircraft pilots to see and avoid other aircraft near them.  Since the unmanned aircraft pilot is on the ground, she must rely on sensors in the UAS to allow her to detect and avoid other aircraft.  This adds cost and complexity to the system than can be reduced or eliminated by a functioning UTM system.

The core functionality of a UTM implementation will be managed by a UAS Service Supplier (USS).  There are currently no companies who have stepped forward to take on the role of a USS.  Several drone software companies have partnered with NASA to support the development of the concept (e.g. Skyward and Airware).  The role of the USS is still evolving but we know that the USS would be a commercial entity with approval and oversight by the FAA.  The USS would provide services like:

  • Command and control communications between the UAS Pilot and the aircraft
  • Ground based radar to detect manned aircraft and provide the location to the unmanned operators
  • High density weather sensors to provide critical environmental conditions to operators
  • Coordinate with the FAA air traffic control facilities when unmanned aircraft need to operate in controlled airspace
  • Control access to the airspace to approved operators and help identify unapproved aircraft to the FAA
  • Manage contingencies that alter routine operations (e.g. a severe weather event)

As you can see from the diagram below there are many functions that are required to support the UTM concept.  Each green box represents a service that could be provided by one or more companies working together.  Each USS could provide opportunities for individual companies to provide one or more of the functions listed above.

Notional UTM Architecture from the FAA NASA UTM Research Plan

The USS would be able to charge for their services to cover their costs but it is unknown if they would charge per flight or a monthly fee.  The FAA’s role would be strictly regulatory oversight but they would work closely with the USS to make sure the service was safe and fair to all operators.  The NASA concept envisions the USS would provide service to all operators like Uber, Amazon, and Google and does not envision that each operator would have to set up these shared services.  However, the actual business and regulatory model is still evolving.  Congress supported the concept by directing the FAA to participate in the NASA UTM program in the “FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016” by creating research plan and creating a pilot program.  The plan is available on the FAA website FAA NASA UAS Traffic Management Research Plan and the NASA demonstration in 2018 is the “Pilot Program” mentioned in the law.

Current visual line of site operators would be unaffected by the implementation of UTM.  The service is directed at enabling UAS flights beyond visual line of site.  It is also intended to enable highly automated operations that would allow multiple UAS to be operated by a single person.  Many companies in the industry (e.g. Amazon and Uber) believe high levels of automation are essential to their business models.  NASA has conducted two technology demonstrations and plans two more to test the concepts and learn from issues that may come up.  The third demonstration is planned for early 2018 and will be the most ambitious.  The focus will be on testing technologies that maintain safe spacing between cooperative (aircraft equipped with transponders or ADS-B) and non-cooperative (aircraft only detectable by primary radar) over moderately populated areas.  The final demonstration has not been scheduled but would be close to an actual commercial application of the technology.  The plan is for the FAA to take over the program in 2019 to establish the policy needed to approve operations.

Amazon and Uber have both stated publicly that they believe UTM is a key enabler for achieving their business plans.  There are several other large corporations who are participating in the UTM program because they see the potential benefits for improving UAS integration into low altitude airspace.

However, there are still many unknowns that make the true business potential of the concept uncertain.  The central question is can the USS return their investment in software and infrastructure based on a cost-effective fee structure?  I believe the answer is yes and we will see the first implementations of UTM by 2020.  This opinion is based on the participants in the NASA program and the amount of effort those participants are investing in the demonstrations.  Many obstacles remain, but the work is continuing with enthusiastic support from the UAS industry.

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