Compelling use cases for drones continue to evolve in complexity and scale, from public safety to medical supply delivery, utilities inspection, mining, and more. These use cases require advanced drone operations, including beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) flights. To enable complex commercial drone operations in the future, there is a foundational need to develop digital UAS traffic management (UTM) solutions to integrate a variety of drones and operators within low-altitude airspace. Furthermore, there will be multiple commercial providers of UTM services, known as UAS Service Suppliers (USS), operating within the same shared airspace, so there is a core necessity for interoperability and information sharing among industry players.

In response, U.S. government agencies have been conducting pilot programs over the past several years to demonstrate BVLOS flights and other advanced operations under real-world conditions. One such program, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s UTM Pilot Program (UPP), was designed to advance findings made during earlier NASA TCL drone trials and transition them to the FAA for future implementation and rulemaking.

In January 2019, Virginia Tech’s Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) was designated as one of three UAS Test Sites for the UPP. MAAP then selected four commercial USS—AirMap, AiRXOS (part of GE Aviation), ANRA Technologies, and Wing—to supply the UTM services at the core of the trials.

MAAP’s UPP trials demonstrated drone flights in a variety of dynamic, real-world scenarios, including agricultural surveying, insurance inspections, and newsgathering. The scenarios introduced an intentionally diverse set of drones and drone operations into the same airspace to test their interactions. For example, one scenario involved various drone operations in the wake of a major storm, including an insurance company inspecting buildings for damage, a farm using a drone for a post-storm crop survey, and a delivery drone carrying relief supplies to the affected area. To ensure safety and deconfliction, it is critical that the different USS servicing these drone operations can communicate with each other.

“The FAA’s UPP trials at MAAP positively demonstrated the potential of an open, collaborative drone marketplace, with multiple providers operating in the same airspace. We believe that the UPP’s findings will help further encourage the safe integration of drones into the national airspace and unlock the full economic and societal potential of commercial drone operations.”

– Ben Marcus, AirMap Chairman and Co-founder

The trials took place on Jun 13–21, 2019. The multi-day program resulted in 141 flights using five types of aircraft. For the trials, AirMap and the other USS each provided UTM services for participating drones, including flight planning and manned traffic alerts. At the same time, the four USS systems communicated with each other to share flight plans and ensure deconfliction, helping to provide a shared view of the airspace and improve overall safety and coordination.