NASA is continuing its unmanned aircraft system (UAS) traffic management (UTM) testing phases with drones by conducting a series of level two (TCL2) tests with commercial drone vendors around the country in 2017.

The latest NASA tests focus on the integration of multiple disparate custom and commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware, software and airframes solutions from a diverse set of drone technology vendors. The end goal is to make all of this technology come together so safe and secure UAV commercial activities across a broad spectrum of industries can utilize U.S. airspace.

Geospatial technology is central to this effort.

“The reason geospatial technology is such a critical element in drone traffic management is that it lets you know where your vehicle is in conjunction with your flight plan, as well as informing you about the locations of other vehicles around you and of facilities on the ground,” says Kevin Gallagher, CEO of Simulyze, which produces operational intelligence software with a “single pane of glass” view of drone activity.

There are other layers of vital inflation that must also be overlaid on this geospatial grid so that the operational intelligence that drone operators and fleet managers get is as enriched as possible.

Drone operators and fleet managers need more than just a flight plan and operational control of the drones, Gallagher says. “This is why when we architected our software, we built the system in such a way that different layers of information could be added to a geospatial map. This information can include data about facilities and the factors on the ground, and also information about what is going on around you in the air. It can also incorporate weather information such as wind speed, precipitation and storm data. Drone operators have the ability to turn these information layers on or off, if they encounter bandwidth limitations that constrict the wireless information flow between them and the drone. This enables drone operators to scale down to the information that is absolutely mission critical for them to see.”

Bandwidth constraints remain as a central challenge to the full and unfettered use of geospatial data on drones because geospatial data payloads transmitted in real time during a drone flight are substantial. This is why the ability for operators to throttle this information in-flow is so important.

“The other challenge that the industry is still wrestling with concerns telemetry,” Gallagher says. “What happens is that the telemetry updates don’t come in often enough, so there are occasional time fidelity issues.” This can affect the accuracy of measurements and the data that is collected remotely by the drone.

Because drone traffic management carries with it paramount safety and security concerns, working through bandwidth limitations and telemetry inaccuracies are highly relevant. So, too, is the need to look at alternate technologies like radio, which NASA and participating drone technology suppliers like Simulyze see as a means of issuing audio alerts to drone operators so they can address issues like a drone flying outside of its flight boundaries when communications from the drone itself break off. In these cases, an audio alert can promote an operator to turn his or her attention back to the operating console, and to take steps to override the system so the drone can be manually directed.

“Having an audio alert and override function was something that we learned would be very important from the phase two NASA UAS test,” Gallagher says. “We recognized that it would be very important for us to configure an audio system that would trigger when a drone started exceeding the boundaries of its flight plan.”

Although NASA testing has focused primarily on single drone air flight management to date, many commercial suppliers like Simulyze are already thinking ahead to the tasks of managing drone fleets.

For this task, geospatial technology must cover multiple flights, communications and conditions in the air and on the ground.

“We are talking about many unmanned vehicles that could potentially share airspace, and also many fights that are no longer line of sight, and which will require operators in control centers to have single screen visibility,” Gallagher says. “In short, commercial drones will need to function much like standard aviation. They will need to know not only geospatial, but temporal conditions of flights. As this technology comes onboard at companies desiring to run their own drone fleets, the tools available for the task must also be able to help these companies determine how they are going to run their drone command centers, whether they will need to add staff to these centers, and how they will develop multiple flight plans and sequence their flights.”