Blazing a trail for safely integrating drones into the national airspace, a team from NASA’s Ames Research Center on Oct. 19 flew four uncrewed aircraft – commonly called drones – at Reno-Stead Airport in Reno, Nevada.

The “out of sight” tests, led by NASA in coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration and several partners, were the latest waypoint in solving the challenge of drones flying beyond the visual line of sight of their human operators without endangering other aircraft. They were part of  NASA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) traffic management (UTM) research platform, led by Dr. Parimal Kopardekar, manager of NASA’s Safe Autonomous Systems Operations project and senior engineer for Air Transportation Systems at Ames.

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During the test, two of the drones flew beyond their commanders’ lines of sight. As many as two drones were operated in the same test airspace, separated by altitude and within sight of their operators. The pilots used the NASA-developed UTM research platform to gain information about all the drones’ locations and proximity to other air traffic and hazards. UTM also informed other airspace users of potential hazards and conflicting operations that could affect their plans.

 

Before multiple drones can fly in the same area, beyond the pilots’ view, procedures need to be in place to safely manage the traffic. Operators must be aware of other aircraft around them, no-fly zones (also known as geo-fenced areas), and man-made and natural hazards, such as severe weather or unanticipated events in the area.

During the Oct. 19 tests, NASA demonstrated UTM’s Technical Capability Level 2 (TCL2) by connecting real drone-tracking systems to the research platform, providing alerts for approaching drones and piloted aircraft (live or simulated), as well as providing information about weather and other hazards. “We are very happy with the test,” said Dr. Kopardekar, at the close of the day. “We have completed all our test goals, in terms of the number of scenarios and data collection toward operations beyond visual line of sight. The test was possible due to a very good collaboration among partners and NASA.”