NASA Tests Traffic Management System For UAS In North Dakota, Other Locations

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Mentions of NASA may conjure images of far-off galaxies, but one of the agency’s most recent research endeavors doesn’t require leaving Earth’s atmosphere.

NASA is behind an effort to create an air traffic management system for unmanned aircraft systems, also known as drones, and has enlisted researchers from across the United States to help with the endeavor.

The agency highlighted its progress on a UAS Traffic Management system during a national media day held June 6 at locations around the country, including the drone activity hub of Grand Forks, N.D.

“North Dakota’s partnership with NASA is helping to drive crucial research that will assist the Federal Aviation Administration in implementing UTM for all UAS users in the national airspace,” said Nicholas Flom, executive director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site.

Nicholas Flom, executive director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, welcomes a crowd to a June 6 media event featuring NASA-led research. Photo by Brandi Jewett/Droning On.

The North Dakota test site is one of seven tasked with developing regulatory standards for integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace. Test sites in Alaska and Virginia also are leading UTM research in their respective states.

On the campus of the University of North Dakota, Flom and others explained the research being conducted and underscored its importance for the future of the UAS industry.

The UTM system would monitor airspace for both manned and unmanned aircraft, distributing data necessary to keep both types of aircraft from flying too close or colliding. Its implementation would pave the way for integrating drones into the national airspace and enable safe, low-altitude flights for a multitude of purposes.

“The system itself actually starts warning the operators that are using the system of possible interactions with other aircraft that are coming through the area,” said Chris Theisen, director of research and development for the North Dakota test site.

The test site conducted research flights about 10 miles south of Grand Forks that simulated various uses for the aircraft from precision agriculture to electrical utility inspection, according to a news release Overall, the UTM system supports a variety of uses, including package deliveries, farmland surveys, powerline and power pole inspections, search and rescue operations, video surveillance operations, and runway, railway and bridge inspections.

“It seems like all the time people come up with new ideas for UAS,” Ron Johnson, a project manager at NASA’s Ames Research Center, said. “So the UTM system of the future has to accommodate all these various types of operations and vehicles.” 

Assisting the test site and NASA with the North Dakota-based research are several private UAS companies. They are ISight RPV Services, SkySkopes and Unmanned Applications Institute of Grand Forks, and Botlink of Fargo as well as Simulyze, based in Reston, Va., which served as the software partner on the project.

“Initiatives such as this collaboration with NASA continue to demonstrate the strength of our expanding UAS industry cluster, which will diversify and grow the state’s economy,” Gov. Doug Burgum said in a statement. “This research with NASA illustrates that North Dakota is building an environment where companies and new entrepreneurs are developing the future of unmanned aviation.”

As of this month, North Dakota has invested $43 million into unmanned aircraft research and development over the past decade. Political leaders such as Burgum and Lt. Gov. Brett Sanford have continued to emphasize the industry’s growing impact in a state where agriculture and energy make up a majority of its economic activity.

The NASA UTM testing marks another milestone for the state’s ever-expanding portfolio of UAS-related successes.  

“This is a very exciting initiative,” Sanford said. “It’s just the latest example of the tremendous potential public-private partnerships bring to our state and to this growing UAS industry.”