5 Takeaways from FAA’s UTM Pilot Program 2 (UPP2)

Last week, the OneSky team – along with representatives from the FAA, NUAIR, and a number of other UTM providers – wrapped up Phase 2 of the UAS Traffic Management Pilot Program (UPP2). Taking place at Griffith International Airport in upstate New York, UPP Phase 2 was meant to, “showcase capabilities and services that support high-density Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) operations, including remote identification (Remote ID) services and public safety operations.” As we look back over the 7 months of rigorous simulations, trials and testing – we wanted to share our top takeaways from this rewarding and collaborative experience. 

While standards continue to evolve, it’s clear significant progress has been made – and real-world UTM systems are more mature than ever.

UPP2 identified five realistic use cases for UTM in a high density airspace, ranging from beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) medical flights to line-of-sight (LOS) cinematography operations. At one point, approximately 15 drone flights were operating simultaneously in downtown Rome, NY. Fortunately, ASTM standards provided the viable framework for UTM service providers to communicate with one another. Remote identification, conformance monitoring, strategic deconfliction and other functions that ASTM specifies, demonstrated the feasibility of the CONOPS.  All of the work behind the ASTM standards enables OneSky to interoperate with other USS’s to give pilots the enhanced situational awareness they need to safely fly in busy environments.  

UPP2 placed a much needed focus specifically on global USS interoperability. 

As part of the UPP2 exercise, there were between four to six organizations collaborating together at any given time, ensuring compatibility with the ASTM standard. While communication between USSs should be relatively straight forward, even making a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich can turn into a mess if you misinterpret the order of operations. As with any new technology, some requirements are implied and not mentioned, and although multiple interpretations of the process may be technically correct, they may not be compatible. 

Amendments to the standards, combined with logistical problems caused by COVID, created a challenging development environment for this project. Thankfully the focus placed on interoperability created multiple opportunities of regression testing along with shakedown tests, akin to rehearsals of the final demonstration, to test features and troubleshoot nebulous, intermittent problems. Several rounds of testing were done to ensure we were communicating and operating with other USSs and a DSS, who in this case was Ax Enterprize – and certainly deserves praise for getting all the right teams together to ensure the shakedowns were successful. 

Navigational accuracy is critical for successful operations – and can cause issues for compliance if not well understood in the planning phase.

Here is a screenshot of a situation where a real drone pilot was physically within the actual flight path, but his GPS position was nowhere near him. You can see the GPS position starts the pilot off several blocks, almost 45 meters, away from his actual position. 

For the USS to mark the aircraft *inside* the volume, the UAV actually had to be *outside* of the flight volume, to accomodate this position error. While 45 meter of GPS error is unusually bad, this allowed us to prove how important navigation accuracy is to conduct UTM operations. 

 There are two solutions to this issue:

  • Expand the flight volume to be much larger than your error, and try your best to stay well away from the boundaries. Though this may not be possible in high density environments such as this one.  
  • Use high-grade hardware to ensure reasonable accuracy. Many GPS receivers include multiple constellations, SBAS, or even dual-frequencies to remove large errors.

The key lesson was that pilots must also be aware of their position and understand that flying the knife-edge of a flight volume may not be good enough even if accuracy is 5 meters. Wind, aircraft performance, and pilot skill also contributes to the ability to stay in conformance with the flight plan. Thus, understanding how to develop and initiate your determined flight plan is critical to get right. You have to ensure you communicate your intentions and have the capability to meet the intentions. This is easy with large flight volumes and low density airspace. Yet when plans require high precision, a lot more planning is required to know where your aircraft actually is, how precise you can fly, and how to remain within your plan.

If you’re interested in learning more about the basics of GPS, how it’s affected by physical and radio constraints, and steps to mitigate these effects, read this technical paper from our Head of Analytics, Ted Driver

It’s clear we need to involve the pilots in these programs earlier, and more often.  

Pilot involvement in the development of ASTM standards remains a bit unclear. Given the additional steps of setting/changing flight status during operations – and necessity to load plans, deconflict with nearby plans, view conformance status and position during flight – feedback from the end users, such as pilots and USS staff, would be valuable for adoption. Though in this case, reduced involvement this was primarily due to COVID-19 restrictions that prevented many operators from participating in the demonstrations. At the end of the day, understanding the needs and challenges of the end users is key to the long term viability of digital traffic management. 

There’s plenty more to come! 

We are excited to have completed the UPP2 demonstration, and look forward to building on this successful pilot program. OneSky will continue to develop airspace assessment, operations and management solutions for the aviation industry – ensuring our skies are safe, accessible, and open to all. To learn more, check out: www.onesky.xyz or contact us directly at info@onesky.xyz.

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