On November 17, the FAA announced that it has completed the second and last phase of its Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (“UTM”) Pilot Program (“UPP”), conducted in partnership with NASA.  The conclusion of the drone demonstration phase is a significant milestone in paving the way for operations beyond visual line of sight (“BVLOS”).  The lessons learned from UPP will support ongoing policy and technology advancement efforts toward enabling BVLOS operations.  In the near term, the FAA is expected to release its final rule on the remote identification of drones (“Remote ID”) and a proposed rule for operations over people and at night by the end of this year or early in 2021.  These rulemakings will incorporate information and data developed during the UPP.  Remote ID is viewed by the FAA as a critical step in the development and deployment of UTM systems to enable routine BVLOS operations.

Established in April 2017, the UPP aims to define an initial set of industry and FAA capabilities required to support UTM operations.  The goal of UTM development is to identify services, roles/responsibilities, information architecture, data exchange protocols, software functions, infrastructure, and performance requirements to enable the management of low-altitude UAS operations under FAA’s regulatory authority.

Phase 2 included testing of Remote ID technologies and operations with increasing volumes and density “to enable safe, routine drone operations by allowing the public, the FAA, law enforcement, and Federal security agencies to identify UAS flying in their jurisdiction.”  Drone demonstrations during this phase showcased the following emerging UTM capabilities:

  • FAA UTM Flight Information Management System prototype and infrastructure, which gives the FAA access to information from industry and other stakeholders.
  • New technologies and data to validate the latest international standards for remote identification and support authorized users with specific operator data.
  • In-flight separation from other drones or manned aircraft in high-density airspace to validate recently proposed international UTM standards to help drones avoid each other.
  • UAS volume reservations to notify drone operators of emergencies and make sure other UTM capabilities work properly in these scenarios.
  • Secure information exchanges between the FAA, industry, and authorized users to ensure data integrity.

The benefits of operating drones BVLOS have been the subject of much anticipation in the UAS community and include greater efficiency, productivity, safety, and economic value in applications such as critical infrastructure inspection, precision agriculture, public safety, and package delivery.

As of the date of this post, the FAA has only issued 53 BVLOS waivers since 2016. With the conclusion of the UPP, the FAA will now issue a report on the results from Phases 1 and 2 of the pilot to stakeholders in the next six to nine months. In the interim, the FAA is expected to release its final Remote ID rule, which will significantly advance the development and integration of UTM systems and enable further FAA rulemaking towards routine BVLOS operations.