Over nearly a week of testing — a week that followed months of preparation and involved five types of aircraft, four aircraft software systems, more than 30 engineers, pilots, and operations experts, and 141 flights — the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership and its partners sought to answer an increasingly urgent question: How can we effectively manage the diversity and volume of drone traffic we’re expecting?
The tests were part of a Federal Aviation Administration initiative known as the UAS Traffic Management Pilot Program, or UPP. The program, designed to help transition drone traffic management from the research phase toward commercial viability, is the latest stage of a long-term federal effort to facilitate the development of technology and protocols that are becoming imperative as commercial demand for drone use climbs.
Previous phases of the research, some of which was conducted at Virginia Tech, have been managed by NASA; now the program is transitioning to the FAA for implementation. This particular series of tests evaluated the maturity of the technology and yielded data that can guide the regulatory organization as they consider new policies for drone use.
The Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), which runs the university’s FAA-designated drone test site, was selected in February to participate in the program.
“This was a pivotal series of tests,” said Mark Blanks, MAAP’s director. “You can’t achieve UAS integration without UAS traffic management, which is why we’ve been heavily engaged in this research for years. Now we’re seeing the technology evolve to a level where it’s close to being deployable in the real world, and it’s incredibly rewarding to imagine the operations that are going to be possible because of this work.”
Solving the traffic-management problem is one of the key hurdles to widespread integration. Currently, commercial drone use is subject to strict regulations that reduce risk but sharply limit the range of possible applications — without a specific waiver, the aircraft can’t fly over people or beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight, among other restrictions.
If some of the risk reduction that’s currently achieved by these regulations could be handled instead by traffic-management software — ensuring that drones stay away from each other, away from manned air traffic, and out of areas where their presence might create an undue hazard — more types of flights could be permitted safely.
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