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UAS airspaceThough scope of useful applications of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) continues to grow, from assisting emergency response teams to increasing precision in agriculture and infrastructure surveillance to the delivery of products, there is no current established and universal means of managing UAS airspace and operation. UAS traffic management (UTM) research is a much-needed field of inquiry to help establish a safe and effective means of managing UAS air traffic.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), UTM is conceived as the “ecosystem for uncontrolled operations …[that] will ultimately identify services, roles/responsibilities, information architecture, data exchange protocols, software functions, infrastructure, and performance requirements for enabling the management of low-altitude uncontrolled UAS operations.” While NASA has been the leading agency to pursue UTM research, the FAA, other federal partner agencies, and industry associations (such as the Global UTM Association) are among those creating an infrastructure for UAS to compliment the FAA’s Air Traffic Management (ATM) system, which does not manage airspace below 400’ (except near airports) where a majority of UAS flight takes place. 


Relevant Science 

UAS traffic management systems (UTMs)

The FAA plans that UTMs will provide the primary means of communication and coordination between the FAA, UAS operators, and other stakeholders is through automated systems and not between pilots and air traffic controllers via voice. UTM systems are not a single piece of technology but a collection of sensors, operator interfaces, and decision-making programs that enable safe and efficient UAS flight and operations by providing the following services such as:

  • Airspace design - involves the designation or restriction of specific portions of the atmosphere for various aircraft flight performing various operations;
  • Corridors - specific sub-sections of an airspace that an aircraft is restricted to for flight or specific operations;UAS Geofencing example
  • Geofencing - relying on Global Positioning Systems (GPS), dynamic geofencing is a technical means of overriding UAS operations to restrict flight navigation and specific operations within a predefined or dynamic portion of airspace;
  • Weather and wind avoidance – Severe weather and wind can impede an operators line-of-sight and operation of UAS, effective UTMs will coordinate with meteorological monitoring systems to prevent or lessen these detrimental effects to UAS operation;
  • Congestion management - increased use of UAS by private, public, and industry operators will increase the risk within an airspace. Congestion management helps mitigate these risks by restricting or organizing entry and operations with the airspace;
  • Terrain and collision avoidance – Assistance provided by the UTM to ensure that UAS can sense and avoid obstacles in the airspace including other aircraft, buildings, and the ground or sea;
  • Route planning, re-routing, and location management – involves the directions, given by the UTM, to determine the appropriate location, speed, spacing, sequencing of all UAS while in the controlled airspace for safe and efficient operation;
  • Contingency management – Inevitably, errors, unexpected changes, or bad actors may impinge an airspace negating or complicating a UAS’s ability to safely operate. Contingency management involves a UTM’s anticipation of and reaction to the possible deviations to UAS flight plans that might occur in an airspace.

Semi-automated UTM Systems

Like many state-of-the-art traffic management systems, NASA’s UTM research is pursuing a semi-automated system that enables UTM operators to not have to continuously monitor every UAS in the air. Such intelligent UTM systems would provide UTM operators with critical data to strategically manage the airspace, automatically checking that all operating UAS are authorized, and providing optimized airspace planning decisions given airspace congestion, weather conditions, and other mitigating influences on the airspace.

Pursuing Portable or Persistent UTM Systems

Portable and persistent UTMOf the various ways NASA pursues a semi-automated UTM system, there are two general types of UTM systems. First, Portable UTM systems would be equipment that UTM operators physically transport between needed areas to support UAS operations such as precision agriculture and disaster relief. The second type of system is a Persistent UTM system. A Persistent UTM not be transported but instead established in areas of anticipated areas of continuous UAS use (such as cities). For either system, UTM operators would require continuous communication, navigation, and surveillance (CNS) coverage for all UAS and their operators, to track, ensure, and monitor safe UAS operation in the airspace. 

Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability

Already, the FAA has also begun commencing development of the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC), a persistent UTM supporting air traffic control authorization requirements for UAS operations by providing operators with near real-time airspace authorizations. The semi-automated LAANC is able to decrease wait-time for operators planning their routes by providing real-time airspace data, Air Traffic Control safety notices, and UAS facility maps indicating the acceptable airspace.

Some of the challenges associated with traffic management for UAS is determining the best means of establishing a command and control system among the UAS, operators, and the UTM system that is also integrated with the communication networks of other aircraft and air traffic controllers. Current research pursued by NASA includes assessing the capabilities of UAS to support sense and detect technologies that can effectively communicate with other aircraft and the UTM using 4G cellular networks while not sacrificing the flight capabilities of the UAS.

Proposed UAS and UTM integration


To test its progress in UTM research, NASA continues to work with government, industry, and academic partners on a series of tests to determine the "Technology Capability Level (TCL)" of their progress with each level increasing in complexity. Completed and anticipated TCLs include:

  • UTM TCL1: Testing covered the use of UAS for agriculture, firefighting and infrastructure monitoring, with a focus on geofencing, altitude "rules of the road" and scheduling of vehicle trajectories. Testing concluded in August 2015 and is undergoing additional testing with the FAA site;
  • UTM TCL2: following findings and success from TCL1, NASA focused on testing beyond visual line-of-sight operations (BVLOS) in sparsely populated areas with technologies allowing dynamic adjustments to availability of airspace and contingency management. TCL2 testing completed in October 2016;
  • UTM TCL3: focuses on testing technologies that maintain safe spacing between friendly and responsive and adversarial non-cooperative (non-responsive) UAS over moderately populated areas. TCL3 testing was completed in March 2018; and
  • UTM TCL4: to be completed by 2020, will build on TCL3 to focus on UAS operations in higher-density urban areas for commercial deliver tasks.

As per the D.C. Circuit, Appeals Court ruling on the statutory validity of the FAA’s drone Registration Rule in Taylor v. Huerta (SciPol Brief available), the FAA is barred from requiring recreational drone operators to register their UAS with the FAA. While some have argued the compulsory registration as redundant, others have argued that this restriction is an impediment to the safe operation and management of UAS.


Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program

On May 9, 2018, the DOT announced that USDOT had selected 10 state, local and tribal governments as participants in the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program (a list of the ten selectees can be found here). Announced in October of 2017, the White House and FAA solicited applications from over 100 state, local, and private sector participants for the UAS pilot program. The Integration Pilot Program was designed to begin creating data of drone integration among participating stakeholders to provide data for the formation of a new UAS regulatory framework addressing safety and security concerns, improving communication among airspace jurisdictions, and accelerating UAS review and approval processes. By some estimates, the eventual integration of UAS with the existing airspace provide up to $82 billion in economic development and at least 100,000 jobs. The Integration Pilot Program will commence by the end of 2018 and be continue for the next two and a half years. During this time, participants will collaborate to research, monitor, and collect drone data involving night operations, flights over people and beyond the pilot’s line of sight, package delivery, detect-and-avoid technologies and the reliability and security of data links between pilot and aircraft.

UAS Service Suppliers

Currently, NASA and the FAA anticipate that while UTMs will be regulated and guided by the government, their operations will be managed by selected and private UAS Service Suppliers (USS). USSs are granted authority by the FAA to facilitate the collaboration and communication among UAS stakeholders (operators, local air traffic control and law enforcement, etc.) of a given location. USS will also provide vital services such as provided by LAANC, including real-time aircraft and meteorological tracking and route planning as well as those other service listed above under NASA’s UTM research.

UTM Beyond Drones

Although much of the current research and interest in UTM has focused on drone traffic, the challenges and opportunities encountered by UTM also apply to other forms of unmanned or automated vehicles such as cars, boats, and other aircraft. In fact, progress for UTM in any of these fields could support the parallel development in the others as UTM-like hubs will be necessary to facilitate the safe and efficient operation of these other unmanned or automated vehicles.

Primary Author 
Scott "Esko" Brummel, MA in Bioethics and Science Policy
Recommended Citation 

Duke SciPol, “Science Module: Unmanned Aerial Systems Traffic Management (UTM)” available at (06/12/18).

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