UTM and the New Frontier of Drone Safety

UTM and the New Frontier of Drone Safety

Commercial drones have become commonplace. In agriculture, they’re equipped with specialized sensors to help farmers, both big and small, make targeted and cost-effective decisions to improve yield. In mining and construction, they’re improving operational tempo by enabling realtime surveying and 3D mapping. Even in the insurance industry, drones are changing the game by helping insurers quickly and more accurately gauge damage and process claims.

As drones swarm the airspace, discussions around safety are becoming more prevalent. For traditional manned aircraft, air traffic management systems expedite monitoring and ensure safety. This infrastructure came about through decades of application and development. In the case of drones, however, similarly robust safety systems have yet to be put in place since mainstream use is still novel. 

UTM and Commercial Operations

Why does the commercial drone space even need UTM? Just like cars on the road, drones need to operate under a set of established rules to ensure safety. The goal of UTM is to provide a system that allows both drones and traditional aircrafts to inhabit the same airspace harmoniously. One of the most basic restrictions that drone pilots encounter is ensuring that all flights are done within visual line of sight. We’ve previously covered how keeping flights within view requires careful flight planning. Sometimes this means that pilots have to split up data collection into multiple flights so that they can cover large areas. 

Right now, the approval to carry out a BVLOS flight is granted by the FAA on a case-to-case basis via the Part 107 waiver. To acquire this, however, operators need to go through a thorough application process that can take weeks to months. For companies that value operational tempo, constantly seeking approvals before flying isn’t viable, so most operators stick to flying within visual line of sight. And even if a company does go through the rigamarole of the Part 107 process, there is still a slim chance of approval as 99% of applications are usually rejected by the FAA. But with a fully functioning UTM system, the risks posed by flights that go beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) would be significantly diminished, because pilots could monitor their drone vis-a-vis other drones and traditional aircrafts effectively. Ultimately UTM addresses two key components of flying commercially: 1) getting a flight plan approved 2) managing safety at all times while drones are operating in any given airspace. 

UTM Options for Pilots Today

For pilots the key question is whether a true UTM system exists that they can access now to improve their operational safety, even without BVLOS flights in mind. And some current tools provide some of the functionalities of such a system.  For example, drone airspace management companies like AirMap currently offer valuable UAS Traffic Management solutions. They provide an integrated platform that gives operators insight into other drone traffic using the AirMap platform, as well as regulatory considerations in the flight area, information on terrain, possible obstacles, and weather with the option of adding auxiliary data layers. 

However, while the capabilities of the systems available today are valuable, they have limitations. Many of the current solutions, for instance, don’t directly track manned aircraft traffic. In the case of AirMap, their platform instead allows partner airspace organizations like airports to connect with drone pilots who have added their flight plans and contact information into the system should potential conflicts arise. So while some traffic management solutions do exist and can be leveraged for improved operational safety, the full realization of a true UTM vision is still in the future.

What’s Next for UTM?

With the interest for drones apparent, several organizations have been working towards a unified and comprehensive UTM system. NASA pegs the levels of sophistication of a UTM  based on its technical capability level (TCL), the lowest of which is one and the highest is four. With a UTM at TCL4, drones will be able to fly BVLOS and within highly dense urban environments while providing services like parcel delivery. Right now, however, NASA is only at TCL3 and they’re still working on reaching TCL4 at their test site in Reno.

Beyond NASA, private companies are also invested on expanding current UTM capabilities. Airbus has been working on their own UTM with a focus on giving drone operators autonomy. The work of AirMap and Google’s Project Wing, on the other hand, has centered on developing remote ID technology. You can think of remote ID as a license plate for drones. Through remote ID, each drone will have a readable license that can be detected by a UTM system thereby making tracking easier while also increasing accountability and overall safety. 

Both the private and public spheres are hard at work in developing UTM. The next few years will truly be an exciting time for the drone industry. Improved UTM solutions mean safer drone operations. It also means that operators can freely carry out BVLOS flights thereby opening the door to a trove opportunities for the commercial application of drones.

Role of Risk Solutions in Enabling UTM

Ultimately, the objective of a UTM system is the reduction of risk. This means that part of the development of a comprehensive and effective UTM is the ability to assess risk factors. On this, REIN EVP for AI Ernest Earon says that, “We cannot talk about broad, at-scale, traffic management for drone operation without talking quantitatively about safety, about risk, and about the tools and strategies to mitigate those risks.” He adds that the advantage of the drone industry is that it has access to a wealth of data. The challenge is in the identification of the right tools and techniques for data collection and analysis in order to make accurate risk determinations.

If you have any questions regarding the protection of your commercial drone operations, you can reach out to us at info@DroneInsurance.com or go to DroneInsurance.com and create your free account.


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