Safety in Numbers

Drones won’t reach their potential until they can fly well out of sight, and achieving that safely is the goal of a testing corridor being built in central New York reports Jeff Decker.

Global providers eagerly await the Request for Proposal, expected in March, to offer their equipment and ideas to make UAS Traffic Management (UTM) a reality.

The Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance’s 50-mile corridor could be in place by 2018, though a smaller testing zone is going online later this year.

NUAIR executive director and general counsel Lawrence Brinker expects new regulations to follow proven operations Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS). “The basis of all FAA safety regulations,” he notes, “is that there’s a pilot on board who can see and avoid trouble.” When the pilots are on the ground, or they’re simply computer programmes, see-and-avoid becomes a new challenge.

With 600,000 small commercial drones sold in 2016 and 2.7 million projected by the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to be sold in 2020 (of 7 million total units), the low altitudes will soon become very crowded and very profitable. These are early days for what may become a trillion-dollar global industry.

Keeping central New York and its cluster of radar and avionics companies at the forefront of this growing sector led Governor Andrew Cuomo to offer a $30 million grant in November. In December 2015, Cuomo has already allotted $250 million to launch the Project U-SAFE corridor (UAS Secure Autonomous Flight Environment).

In August, Gryphon Sensors received its first grant to lead Project U-SAFE Phase I. Ground stations at Griffiss International Airport in Rome, at Oneida County Emergency Operations Centre and two other sites form a triangle of coverage that will be the programme’s first proving grounds of BVLOS flight.

Gryphon Sensors programme director David Whitaker says the Phase I zone will stretch up to 25 miles. They will operate two of the radars and two are owned and operated by Oneida County. Whitaker says the gear includes ADS-B tracking, and multiple sensors.

“At the Griffiss Airport we are going to add what we call passive sensing. It basically is a passive receiver that listens for RF transmissions from UAS aircraft. Either the telemetry downlink or the data downlink. It uses those signals to triangulate. It’s another method of detection, in addition to the radar,” he explains.

The airport will also have an electro-optic infrared camera system, using both an infrared and a standard camera to visually identify what is in the air. Phase I also includes a Mobile UTM System, based in a van or on a truck. “It can be deployed to any location and set up in a matter of hours,” Whitaker says.

The mobile surveillance node will interface directly with the UTM system and provide situational awareness wherever that truck may be. Such mobility will be highly valued in the early days of widespread implementation, allowing operations where no fixed monitoring exists yet. So far the FAA has yet to any approve BVLOS operations in New York.

Confidence

Persistence will bring approval and further growth, Whitaker expects, and he’s confident they’ll overcome problems that aren’t yet foreseen. He compares the process to approval of self-driving cars, but with the additional vertical dimension. “It’s a very similar technology,” he says, “but with cars, if you get in trouble you can always stop. Not so much with every UAS!” Gryphon, NUAIR and their many partners need to prove these systems work first.

The local chamber of commerce, called Center State CEO, formed NUAIR to keep this region at the cutting edge, says chief of staff Ben Sio. “Today, a number of firms are actively involved in this sector locally, including: SRC, Lockheed Martin, Saab, SRCTec, Gryphon Sensors, INFICON, Anaren, Young and Franklin, and Tactair,” he says. More than 22,000 local employees owe their jobs to this sector.

FAA rules limit testing and general operations to aircraft weighing 50 pounds or less, but larger drones will follow in the wake of success by the light craft. For now, commercial operation is restricted to daylight, line-of-sight, under 100 mph, under 400 feet, within Class G airspace only, and may never fly over people or be operated from a moving vehicle.

At one of seven approved UAS test sites nationwide, NUAIR started flight tests in 2014 and last year conducted nearly 650, Brinker says, with a focus on ground-based sense-and-avoid development. Another aspect is their NUSTAR testing facility, which should be open in late 2018 and expanded over the next several years.

There, UAS from every manufacturer will be invited to endure rigorous testing to establish reliable performance specifications. Knowing what each aircraft is capable of will be invaluable in welcoming it into shared airspace worldwide and the early UTM being tested in the new nearby corridor between Rome and Syracuse.

The prototype system at Griffiss airport in Rome uses SRC L-STAR radar and Saab Sensis Wide-Area Multilateration sensors, says Brinker. “We’re adding to it to expand that capability,” he adds. The 50-mile corridor of Phase II will include multiple ground stations with technologies and ideas from global providers. “I think it’s unlikely that it’ll be all the same equipment at every site,” he predicts, although he can’t yet say how many stations to expect.

“Part of the proposal process will be for people to come and tell us what they think,” he adds. Line-of-sight is necessary for each station, so placement will depend greatly on terrain. The lower the flight, the tighter the stations must be placed.

The corridor’s width will also be determined by the variety of testing it is used for. It could be ten miles or wider, but, Brinker warns, “I wouldn’t try to characterise it with any particular boundaries. It could be a 60-mile bubble.” Testing is not altitude-restricted, he notes. “We can conduct tests up to 60,000 feet if we need to,” though most testing will be below 1,200ft.

Manned aircraft operate above 500 feet, and the creator of the UTM concept says safe integration with manned aircraft at all elevations remains the greatest challenge. Dr Parimal Kopardekar, NASA’s senior technologist for air transportation systems, is at the centre of 200 public and private partners collaborating to perfect UTM.

He makes sure research isn’t duplicated as a host of challenges are identified and overcome. “It’s all about being able to manage different contingencies and off-nominal conditions,” he says. “What happens when GPS degrades, when wind is very high, when the vehicle has a malfunction?”

Mapping

Urban mapping will be invaluable, he says, and new software will meet that need. Wire detection is now critical, as are localised weather reports, but the first area of defence is knowing exactly where other aircraft are at any moment. The second is sense-and-avoid.

“The system gives sense and alert to the operator,” he explains. “Just as with ATC right now, the system does not ever take control of any of the vehicles, but it will send an alert. Collision is one of them.” Another would be to yield for a public safety UAS or a manned aircraft, but generally the environment should be predictable.

“UTM connects all our operators through applicator protocol interfaces. It lets them see the airspace before they enter,” Kopardekar notes. He’s intrigued by how the new infrastructure will look. “Particularly in urban spaces, where there are urban canyons. GPS signals have too much reflectivity in some locations. We may need beacon-based triangulation. All of these are being explored. None of them are certain to be foolproof yet.” One possibility makes use of existing mobile phone towers.

Once the technology is proven and regulations are in place, Kopardekar predicts computers will take on even more responsibility as UAS flocks fly in harmony. “The rules now basically have a one-to-one relationship. Visual line of sight and one aircraft for one operator,” he says, “In the future we’re hoping, if we can prove that this works, it would be an M to N relationship. M number of operators to N number of drones.”

Exactly who will offer the newly-proven UTM services is another unknown. Brinker expects several companies to step up. “NUAIR was never meant to be a huge organisation,” he says, noting they have only nine employees. “NUAIR is meant to catalyse private industry. What you’ll see is some of the standard companies like Lockheed Martin, SRC, Saab Sensis, that have all developed unmanned technology for military use, they’ll be commercialising that and growing their teams.”

Frequent MQ-9 Reaper flights by the Air National Guard 174th Attack Wing further enhance the Syracuse area’s reputation for pioneering UAS flights, points out Mark Viggiano, chief executive of Niteopark. “And look at how intensive that is! It takes two or three guys to run one mission,” he notes.

Viggiano led Saab Sensis until 2014, and has been advising NUAIR since 2013, including how to protect drone communications from potential hackers. With so many challenges ahead, he advises patience as well as persistence. “Anyone who tells you they’re an expert is probably yanking your chain,” he says. “It’s all happening so fast that we’re all in the same boat.”

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