The Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership is adding another major federal program to its list of prestigious drone-integration initiatives. 

The new program focuses on managing drone traffic, a hefty undertaking that encompasses a series of tasks,  including flight planning, separation, weather services, and communication.

The drone industry groups these functions under the label “UAS traffic management,” or UTM; the UTM Pilot Program is run by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to shepherd these technologies from the research phase toward commercial implementation. 

The Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) was one of three test sites selected for a slot in the program, along with North Dakota’s Northern Plains UAS Test Site and the Nevada UAS Test Site Smart Silver State program. MAAP will be participating in the program alongside a roster of commercial partners. 

A growing number of industries are finding applications for drones in their work, a trend projected to intensify as FAA regulations gradually expand to permit a broader range of commercial operations. The resulting influx of small, low-altitude aircraft into the national airspace will require an alternative to the traditional air-traffic management system the FAA maintains for manned aircraft, which isn’t designed to handle the volume or the unique demands of unmanned air traffic.  

Anticipating those needs has spurred efforts to develop a dedicated approach to unmanned traffic management. UTM systems are designed to coordinate multiple concurrent drone operations, automatically handling functions like flight planning, weather services, and communication. 

The UTM Pilot Program is the latest phase of a multiyear effort to develop and implement this technology. NASA shouldered the initial stages of the initiative and sponsored research executed by the federal drone test sites; MAAP has conducted three rounds of increasingly complex testing under the program. 

Now, as drone traffic management edges closer to implementation, coordination of the UTM effort is shifting to the FAA, who will ultimately oversee its deployment. The three test sites selected for the program are charged with conducting a series of tests and demonstrations that will evaluate the maturity of the technology and yield data that can guide the FAA as they consider new policies and rules for drone use. 

“Managing drone traffic means solving a whole set of complicated problems simultaneously, and we’ve spent the last several years working alongside NASA and our commercial partners to identify feasible solutions,” said MAAP director Mark Blanks. “Now, we’re seeing this work come to fruition as technology that has the potential to dramatically expand the industry.” 

Unlike traditional air-traffic management, which is handled entirely by the federal government, UTM will constitute a partnership between industry and the regulator. Oversight will belong to the FAA, but the technology has been primarily developed by private companies, who have come together under the aegis of the federal test sites to evaluate how their systems perform in flight scenarios designed to simulate real-world conditions. The companies joining MAAP for the UTM Pilot Project include Airmap, AirXOS, ANRA Technologies, ASEC, senseFly, and Wing.

The tests, scheduled to start in the late spring, will incorporate traffic management systems from four companies. The ability for software from different providers to interact seamlessly is critical: for a variety of drones performing a range of missions to share the airspace safely, they must be able to communicate fluently. UTM is the medium for those interactions.    

The sites chosen for the UTM Pilot Program were announced by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao during a presentation at the annual meeting of the National Transportation Research Board. Secretary Chao’s presentation also described proposed rules for drone operations over people, operations at night, and measures to augment security. 

MAAP also leads a team in the UAS Integration Pilot Program, another FAA-DOT initiative; that program brings together companies, government organizations, and communities to develop the next generation of drone applications and draft a roadmap for integrating these aircraft into commerce and public service. 

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