National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) plans to fly unmanned aircraft systems (UAS; commonly known as drones) this month beyond visual line-of-sight of their operators to test planning, tracking and alerting capabilities of NASA’s UAS traffic management (UTM) research platform. Two of the drones will fly beyond visual line-of-sight, and the other three drones (if used) will fly in the same test airspace, but will be separated by altitude (and remain within line-of-sight of their operators). NASA seeks to test the UTM’s platform and its ability to track drone location. Before multiple commercial drones (and government drones for that matter) can start flying in the same areas –beyond a pilot’s view –procedures must be in place to safely manage the drone traffic, stay out of no-fly zones (or geo-fenced areas) and be alerted of severe weather patterns or unplanned events in the airspace that change the drones plans.

During these test flights this month, NASA hopes to demonstrate the UTM platform’s ability to connect real drone tracking systems to the research platform, provide alerts for approaching drones and manned aircrafts, as well as provide information about weather or other hazards. NASA will ensure that all necessary safety precautions are taken and every drone will be continuously monitored visually by observers, ensuring safe operation even when drones are beyond the line of sight of the operator.

The goal is to increase safety (and therefore capabilities) of drone flights beyond visual-line-of-sight, which would lead to changes in the current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, which prohibit such flights. Once the first test is completed, NASA will offer these capabilities to all FAA test sites for further validation and assessment of the UTM platform. NASA plans to start testing tracking procedures for managing cooperative and uncooperative drones to ensure collective safety of manned and unmanned operations over moderately populated areas in January 2018; in 2019, NASA plans to conduct drone test flights involving higher-density urban areas for autonomous vehicles used for newsgathering and package delivery, and will offer large-scale contingency mitigation.