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NASA project manager Ron Johnson talks at a Tuesday press conference about unmanned aerial systems research being completed by the Northern Plains Test Site in Grand Forks. The UAS testing is part of a wider push to develop a largely automated approach to air traffic control for the unmanned vehicles, which are also known as drones. (Andrew Haffner/Grand Forks Herald.)

Local UAS teams partner with NASA for national research campaign

A partnership of local companies and institutions is finalizing research this week to drive forward a NASA project to better manage flight plans for unmanned aerial systems, or drones.

The latest round of testing is the second time in as many years that the Northern Plains UAS Test Site has been included in the aeronautic agency's national campaign to develop a more cohesive platform for its UAS Traffic Management system.

Nick Flom, executive director of the site, said at a Tuesday news conference at UND that the unmanned approach to flight planning—also known as UTM—"was not a buzzword of the industry" just a few years ago.

But by April 2016, Flom said, UTM was building momentum. That was the first time the local test site was pulled into NASA's work to develop a system to one day be used by the Federal Aviation Administration. Since then, the research being done by local parties has grown more sophisticated.

"It was recognized that this was a way forward to combat a problem we'll eventually face," with a growing number of UAS across the country, Flom said. In a not-so-distant future, drones are expected to deliver pizzas and packages and could rely on UTM to avoid mid-air collisions as they travel through busy spaces.

NASA's contract with Northern Plains called on Flom and other leaders to assemble a team of local UAS vendors to get the research off the ground. North Dakota as a whole, and particularly the Grand Forks area, is home to a number of a startup ventures that specialize in different facets of the drone industry. The test site was joined in the most recent research project by local companies SkySkopes, ISight RPV Services and the Unmanned Applications Institute International, as well as Fargo-based Botlink. Looking beyond state lines, Virginia company Simulyze Inc. provided the flight teams at Northern Plains with software support.

The UTM project was also pushed forward with the help of the UND colleges of engineering and aerospace sciences, with further assistance from the university's office of public safety. The university itself maintains a considerable research focus on UAS technology and has identified the subject as a future growth area.

Ron Johnson, a NASA project manager, said the agency's current UTM initiative has been in the works since 2015 and is expected to finish in 2020. The program uses some existing practices in air traffic control for more traditional manned aircraft, but Johnson said the nature of UAS and the industry's vision of integrating drones into the fabric of daily, low-altitude life makes for a "very different" approach to governing flight plans.

"Every plane that's flying, the manned aircraft, is tracked and air traffic controllers are monitoring it," he said. "But that's on the order of a few thousand across the whole country. When you talk about scaling for these UAS, there could be tens of thousands or even millions of operations going on ... so the UTM for the future has to be really automated, and that's what we're trying to do."

Johnson said six national test sites are participating in the NASA project, including the one in North Dakota. The other sites are in Texas, Alaska, Nevada, Virginia and New York.

Much of the actual testing is similar among the sites. The work at Northern Plains ran drone units through various exercises simulating jobs that UAS might be deployed to handle, such as powerline inspections and precision agriculture surveying.

The most recent round of testing is the second step of a four-level research process, Johnson said. The next step is scheduled for later this year or early next year, he said, so it's likely that Northern Plains will be seeing future testing in the near future. The fourth and final step of the ongoing project will be conducted in 2019. Johnson said that last push will focus on controlling many UAS units at the same time in a simulated urban environment.

Flom said the major checkpoints for this second step of testing asked teams to create "vertical separation" between drones operating at the same time, basically "altitude stacking" units as they fly and conduct various tasks.

"That stresses their system," Flom said of the increasingly complicated flight plans. "That's the point of this testing, to try to come up with real-world scenarios that push their limits."

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