FAA begins testing NASA's drone traffic control system

Inside a small control room at the Ames Research Center, large display monitors track the approaching wave of change in the skies


NASA has been working on a UAS traffic management (UTM) system to handle the growing number of unmanned aerial vehicles taking to the skies. The system is undergoing its largest test to date with remote flights planned at all six FAA test sites this week.

As part of the testing, drone operators at each site will simultaneously fly a variety of remote-controlled unmanned aircraft systems. The test sites are dispersed across the country and include locations in Alaska, North Dakota, Nevada, New York, Virginia, and Maryland. A seventh FAA test site in Corpus Christi, Texas, may also participate, weather permitting. Up to 24 drones will take to the air at the same time during this early stage of testing.

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Each test site will fly up to four drones at a time while interacting with the UTM system during all stages of the flight. Before flying, each drone operator will enter their flight plan into the UTM system, which will check the proposed path for potential conflicts and either approve or reject the flight. Operators will be notified of their approval status before their scheduled flight time. Once in the air, the drone's flight pattern will be tracked by the UTM both on a local and a national level. Not only will the flights be tracked at each FAA test site, each drone also will be monitored remotely by engineers working at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.

These tests are a milestone for the system -- it's the first time the UTM research platform has been tested at all six FAA sites at the same time. It is the largest live test with 24 simultaneous live flights and is the first time both live and simulated flights have been processed by the platform. It's also the first time controllers at each location have tested the NASA developed UTM displays and apps on a live flight. NASA hopes to use information gathered from these tests to refine the system so it can track different types of unmanned aircraft and a greater number of them flying in geographically diverse locations.

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