When you think of a story about federal agencies joining forces, “feel good” might not necessarily be the descriptor you’d reach for. But, in this case, we at the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) think we’re onto something.
We have a story to tell that includes cool technology and the best minds in government research and development coming together to keep our country, and the skies above it, safe.
We are all familiar with drones, or as they are more formally called, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). They are becoming more and more ubiquitous, and are being used for everything from backyard fun to military operations. Relatively inexpensive, small, and easy to deploy, they can be controlled with a specialized remote control, an app on your phone, or they may be programmed to autonomously follow a predetermined mission. And, as the technologies for UAS continues to improve, so has the potential for them to be used in illegal and dangerous ways.
In order to deal with these emerging threats, novel and innovative technologies need to be researched, developed, tested, and deployed—which is why S&T launched two unique efforts related to UAS Traffic Management (UTM) and Air Domain Awareness (ADA).
UTM is an S&T-funded initiative that supports the integration of drones into the National Airspace System (NAS). The primary objective of this project is to establish airspace flight corridors, geo-fencing, route planning, terrain avoidance guidance, and weather alerts (among other capabilities) that will enable the safe and secure integration of UAS into our NAS.
“UTM began at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Ames Research Center in 2013 with a research project,” says S&T technical subject matter expert Tim Bennett. “A NASA engineer had an idea for an innovative way to approach the problem using software and started with $5,000 of funding from NASA.”
ADA, on the other hand, prioritizes the development and implementation of aerial surveillance technologies that can detect, track, and identify low-flying (defined as ground level to 500 ft in the air) aircraft and determine their potential threat level.
Most UAS are small, making them difficult to detect. Effective ADA systems need to be able to accurately detect and identify these aircraft in all sorts of terrain, including deserts, scrubby foothills, mountains, forests, cities, coastlines, and anywhere else they could be flying. ADA systems, in concert with an integrated UTM system, need to be able to identify what is legally flying and what is not. A combined system is needed that can provide the kind of air traffic management for UAS that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has for our current manned aircraft.
The success of the initial work brought additional funding, and the project has continued to grow as the scope of the problem and the need for a solution has increased. Congress has also recognized the importance of this effort and has appropriated funds.
A unique and inspiring part of this story is the way that multiple government agencies, each with a need for a similar solution, have come together to create a single platform.
Because UTM and ADA are relevant to many federal government components, there was interest in the projects from not only NASA, but other agencies such as the Department of Defense (DoD), the FAA, the Department of the Interior (DOI), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Each agency has its own operational use case for UTM and ADA and saw the value in having a single system that could be designed, tested and approved. This system could then provide a standard stream of data which could be displayed to suit the individual missions.
“In my 40 years of working on UAS, I have never seen federal government come together like this,” says Bennett. “The agencies meet once a month, and S&T has been a part of the ongoing process.”
Two ADA demonstrations were held this year to evaluate relevant aerial surveillance technologies and their potential to detect, track, and ID aircraft in key locations at our northern border. These field tests were orchestrated and observed by representatives of the disparate agencies that are collaborating on the project, and the demonstrations were standardized so that platforms could be compared head to head.
The first demonstration was held in April in North Dakota to test the technologies in lowland plains terrain, and the second demonstration was held last month in Montana to test the technologies in mountainous terrain. For both demonstrations, targets included UAS under 55 pounds, ultra-light manned aircraft, and small fixed and rotary aircraft.
Conducted during both day and night, the demonstrations operated beyond-visual-line-of-sight and were performed at different altitudes and angles of approach from varying launch locations.
“When you consider metrics such as time, risk, and ability, the combination of UTM with ADA will be a game changer for DHS drone operations—including the delivery of medical supplies, responding to 9-1-1 calls of hazardous materials, bomb threats, suspicious packages, and locating lost persons,” said Bennett.
In the not-too-distant future, ADA and UTM technologies could be monitoring the border, national parks, sensitive national security targets, military installations, coastlines and even high-interest events such as the Super Bowl, thanks to this ongoing whole-of government effort to keep us all safe.