Why Data Management is the Key for Safely Integrating Drones into the National Airspace

Last summer's ship-to-shore drone delivery serves as a useful template for how to integrate data from drones into existing workflows and make it possible for drones to operate safely in the National Airspace

Simulyze's Mission Insight integrates multiple flight operations into a single interface. Here you can see the location of the Flirtey drone, barge, battery charge, altitude, and more.

The number of commercial unmanned aircraft, or drones, in the U.S. is projected to grow tenfold over the next five years, according to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The agency said the key factor in its estimates of commercial drone growth is in “how quickly the regulatory environment will evolve, enabling more widespread routine uses of drones for commercial purposes.”

The FAA has been wrestling with the question of how to safely integrate drone into the National Airspace System (NAS) and existing FAA workflows for quite a while now. It’s released a number of regulations to address drone flight – from the Section 333 Exemption to the latest regulations released last summer, getting it “right” is not only a matter of public safety, but it also affects the future of the commercial drone industry.

There are quite a few enterprising companies and organizations working in cooperation with the FAA and other U.S. government agencies on the task of helping find the best – and safest – solution. Testing exercises like last June’s Disasters ‘Do Tank’ event help make the case for the technology and best practices required to safely integrate UAS.

The Disasters ‘Do Tank’ event took place at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry Terminal in North Cape May, N.J. and was the first ship-to-shore drone delivery demonstration in the U.S. Featuring independent drone delivery service Flirtey and Dr. Timothy Amukele, assistant professor of pathology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the event demonstrated the potential use of UAS to deliver medical supplies during a natural disaster or humanitarian crisis. The drone flights were flown round-trip from a ship located about ½-mile offshore to the Cape May Ferry Terminal in North Cape May, N.J.

In support of the demonstration flights, my company, Simulyze, deployed its Mission Insight application to manage UAS data and create real-time 3D maps of what a drone is encountering, offering a wealth of information on everything from motor speeds and energy use to a complete picture of what’s around the drone and how it can best reach its destination.

The ship-to-shore delivery served as a useful template for how to integrate data from drones into existing data flow and make it possible for drones to operate safely in the NAS. The demonstration, which included processing and visualizing data about ships, manned aircraft and UAVs, further emphasized the critical need for having a broader, real-time picture than just knowing the location of your drone.

The drone delivery demonstration revealed three key factors for safely integrating commercial drones in the NAS.

Employing Best Practices

Safely flying and integrating UAS into the NAS requires a multi‐tiered approach for risk management. The ship-to-shore drone delivery event helped establish a template that could be combined with a traffic management system, such as the research platform being developed by NASA, to support safety from the perspectives of both UAS and other aviation in the NAS. In addition, coordinating with manned aviation through a portal like the FAA’s Flight Service Station, for example, is another necessary aspect of this approach.

Putting these safety best practices into action for UAS operations requires that the operator be able to analyze and measure internal and external elements and assess the potential risks they could pose to an operation. As commercial operators, recognizing and mitigating risks is crucial to maintaining safe practices.

Leveraging Operational Intelligence 

The Disasters ‘Do Tank’ ship-to-shore drone delivery exercise demonstrated that use of operational intelligence (OI) is an essential best practice for maintaining UAS flight safety. The UAS flights during the event showcased an ability to collaborate and coordinate with both the UAS and larger aviation communities. At the event, Simulyze’s Mission Insight OI application provided safe operations and delivered information to UAS operators by coordinating with the FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center.

Four tiers of information were used to support safe flight operations including static planning data, regional data, local real‐time data and UAS telemetry data. Mission Insight provided the aircraft telemetry and other local data back to FAA’s Tech Center platform located in Atlantic City. The Mission Insight application processed the telemetry data in real-time and supplied an integrated display of FAA aircraft data. It also provided weather information, real-time alerts of flight boundary violations and other potential flight conflicts and situational awareness to support safe flying within the national and local airspaces.

Achieving Situational Awareness

During the demonstration, Mission Insight offered geospatial dashboard views of the operational data, increasing the capabilities of the ground control station displays. By using an OI application like Mission Insight, the air boss had complete situational awareness to support the safe flight both within the NAS and the surrounding local area.

Ensuring UAS flight safety in the NAS beyond the latest regulations requires collaboration and coordination with an Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system, like NASA’s research platform, as well as manned flights through NOTAMS, which are advisories containing information regarding essential knowledge to personnel and systems concerned with flight operations. Taking a system like the FAA Flight Service Station into consideration is also essential for collaboration.

Ensuring safety requires real‐time situational awareness and coordination of not just the UAS’s location but the environment in which it is operating. All of these layers offer advanced safety information to support safe operations for both manned and unmanned flights. The last tier of safe flight support involves detect and avoid and vehicle-to-vehicle communications.

As the FAA has implemented the small UAS rule (Part 107) and continues to release new regulations, the future is bright with many exciting possibilities.

The ship‐to‐shore test flights during the summer of 2016 demonstrated the real‐time situational awareness features of the multi‐layer approach to safely operating UAS in the NAS. OI is a key tool for providing the visibility and insight into data that will help ensure UAS flight safety as more drones enter the National Airspace. By presenting a single, complete operational overview of post workflow data that provides deep analytics, real-time processing, insight and intelligence that support informed decision making, OI can manage an entire data workflow from pre-operational planning to post-event analysis, as well as integrate data sources for complete tactical situational awareness

Many of the findings achieved during the ship-to-shore event are now being used in other UAS efforts to further humanitarian solutions, as well various commercial operations. These findings will support the continuing innovation and safe integration of unmanned aircraft into the highly complex network that compromises the National Airspace.

Kevin Gallagher

Kevin Gallagher is co-founder, CEO and president of Simulyze, Inc., a provider of commercial off the shelf (COTS) data analysis, correlation, integration and visualization products. With more than 30 years of industry experience, Kevin is an expert in operational intelligence and how it can be leveraged in commercial drone operations as a key tool for safely integrating in to the National Airspace.

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