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Unmanned Pilot Project: FAA Drone Flight Testing Lands First Milestone

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Source: GE Renewable Energy

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One can perform any number of important jobs. It can deliver a human organ to a hospital, for example, or fly along stretches of isolated pipeline in Texas to perform needed inspections. But add another drone or a manned aircraft to its airspace — or both — and suddenly drone operation gets a lot more complicated.

For unmanned aircraft to fulfill their massive promise of accomplishing jobs great and small, there needs to be a system to manage the traffic of thousands of drones, in addition to the helicopters and passenger planes already in the air. For almost two years the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and a series of industry participants ­— including AiRXOS, part of GE Aviation — have been conducting tests to figure out how to best manage increased air traffic once commercial drones start buzzing in the sky. Just this month AiRXOS completed its real-world test flights in the FAA’s first phase of designing the air traffic management system of the future.

The AiRXOS team was selected to participate at three test sites, where they demonstrated Air Mobility — their cloud-based infrastructure and application platform for unmanned vehicle operations. For AiRXOS, the testing showed that its systems can operate with other commercial providers to coordinate and exchange data for safe flight operations.

The just-completed testing of the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) traffic management system took place at sites in Nevada, North Dakota and Virginia. Nevada itself had three testing locations for the unmanned pilot program, focused on advanced airspace, drone and sensor technology. At the Northern Plains test site in North Dakota, program participants tested situational awareness, and flew drones both within visual line of sight and beyond visual line of sight. The industry considers unmanned aircraft flights beyond visual line of sight crucial to getting widespread drone use off the ground.

Meanwhile in Virginia, the mid-Atlantic test site focused on putting successfully tested drone systems through yet another series of workouts. The idea was that the FAA could identify well-developed existing components that can be enough to roll out in the near future. Across all three sites, the FAA wanted to learn more about how to safely keep aircraft apart from one another, how they can communicate between themselves, and how to handle weather situations. With systems used at all three locations, AiRXOS was the only industry participant used by the FAA at more than one test site.

While drones have been successfully used by the U.S. military for nearly two decades, they’ve flown in environments where the military had command of the skies and could clear out other air traffic to accommodate unmanned aircraft. In day-to-day operations in the U.S., drones won’t have command of the skies; instead, they’ll need to be able to defer to manned craft.

Part of the FAA’s testing included sharing information about low-altitude emergency medical helicopter flights, and how unmanned aircraft operators would act with that information. The agency also collected data to examine all sorts of drone interactions to inform further development of its unmanned traffic management system, or UTM. The UTM will determine how flights under 400 feet of altitude operate in an “ungoverned” space — that is, without active human oversight provided by the FAA’s air traffic management system. That system governs all flights above 400 feet, and separate work is being done on developing the framework for drones there as well. Also tested were connections to FAA-operated flight management servers and Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability services, which are needed to control the airspace below 400 feet.

About 90% of the 1 million drones in the U.S. today are high-priced toys sold at retail stores. If drones can get the OK for use in commercial situations — such as infrastructure inspection, agricultural operations and even package delivery — they could be the basis of a $46 billion business segment by 2026, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

In addition to FAA UTM testing, AiRXOS has been active in other testing programs, including one run by NASA in Reno, Nevada, and another by the FAA on collision avoidance in upstate New York.

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