What is UTM? AirMap Interview with Matt Koskela

UTM, or unmanned traffic management, is one of the key enablers of the drone economy. But what is it? How does it work?

Read this interview with AirMap’s Vice President of Product, Matt Koskela, to find out.

Let’s start with the basics. What is UTM?

“UTM” refers to two things. First, UTM stands for “Unmanned Traffic Management” – how we’ll manage the integration of drones into low-altitude airspace.

We’re heading towards a future in which millions of drones fly billions of flights. These drones will need a complex universe of data to map and understand the environment around them – and tools to communicate and deconflict with others in low-altitude airspace. UTM is the infrastructure that will allow a drone to exchange all of this information with other drones, manned aircraft, airspace management services like AirMap, and other stakeholders like airport personnel and air traffic control.

Second, we use the term UTM to refer to efforts to build this infrastructure worldwide, such as the NASA-FAA UTM project. This project is a collaboration between regulators and private industry partners like AirMap that is testing and harmonizing the technologies we’ll need to realize UTM in the United States.

Can we think of UTM as air traffic control for drones?

That’s certainly part of UTM. Today, air traffic management for manned aircraft is a very human, manual process, built to prevent collisions between planes, known as deconfliction. Deconfliction between drones, or between drones and other aircraft, is just one part of UTM.

Because drones fly in low-altitude airspace, they need a much more detailed picture of their world and the obstacles and events within it: powerlines, building heights, microscale weather, and even the times and locations of community gatherings, such as the weekly farmer’s market.

How do we source and share that information? How do we facilitate communication between all of the stakeholders in this airspace? What services will drones need to plan and fly safe routes? Those are the questions UTM seeks to answer. It’s much bigger than air traffic control.

You mentioned that UTM is a public-private collaboration – how does that work?

The UTM project brings the drone community together to determine how low-altitude airspace management should work – by testing technologies, exchanging data and best practices between companies in the drone industry, and developing performance-based standards for UTM. Companies throughout the drone industry are already building solutions to the challenges of UTM, including AirMap. The UTM project creates a forum in which these solutions can be elevated, shared, and integrated into the final framework.

The key to the UTM project is that it harnesses the power of private industry innovation. Ultimately, NASA and the FAA’s vision for UTM is that private companies called UAS Service Suppliers will facilitate low-altitude airspace management. They’ll do this by providing data and services to drones as well as delivering requests and data back from drones to the rest of the national airspace system.

What are some of the solutions AirMap provides for UTM?

Through the AirMap platform, we’re implementing UTM solutions for the drones of today and the drones of tomorrow. For example, the AirMap platform provides data such as airspace requirements and rules, alerts about manned traffic, hyperlocal weather, and locations of critical infrastructure and other obstacles to drones and their operators. And through our D-NAS system, we help drone operators submit digital flight plans to airports to receive authorization to fly. In turn, airports with a D-NAS dashboard can communicate with drone operators that have shared flight notices in the case of an emergency or hazard.

That’s UTM in action.

How is AirMap taking part in the UTM project?

We’re big believers in the UTM project, and we want to make sure the entire ecosystem can benefit from what we’ve learned building UTM services and products. The way we do that is by participating in UTM project activities like the NASA-FAA Research Transition Team (RTT).

In November, for example, AirMap was one of six companies to participate in the first working group of the RTT – a collaborative initiative to test technologies that could be implemented as part of UTM. Along with Amazon, ANRA Technologies, Simulyze, Skycart and Transtrex, we successfully demonstrated how platforms like AirMap could be used to link the national airspace system and individual drones, and facilitate the exchange of information about real-time flying conditions.

What are you hoping AirMap and the UTM project will achieve in 2017?

To start, we’re looking forward to participating in more tests of UTM technologies in 2017. And by the end of the year, I hope that the NASA-FAA UTM project will have coalesced around performance-based standards for how data will be exchanged in the UTM framework – kicking off the next phase of innovation for the drone industry.

AirMap VP of Product Matt Koskela is a private pilot and engineer with a deep background in delivering cloud-based services to high demand customers.


Written by the AirMap