Bracing for busier skies with drone traffic management research



MAAP engineer Toby Tracy prepares a drone for launch during tests of technology designed to manage the airspace safely as drone traffic increases. The research, which involved 12 drones flown by eight different operators, often simultaneously, marked a significant step up in complexity from previous tests as these systems get closer to real-world use. Mark Blanks for Virginia Tech. Credit: Virginia Tech

Over eight days of testing, 369 drone flights launched and landed at a rural test site outside Blacksburg. In a slice of airspace that covered less than a quarter of a mile, as many as 12 aircraft were sometimes flying at once. These flights were dense by design, choreographed to answer a question that’s increasingly crucial to drone integration: How can drones share the air without bumping shoulders?

The tests, led by the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), marked the culmination of the second phase of the FAA’s UAS Traffic Management Pilot Program. UAS Traffic Management, or UTM, is the network of systems that will facilitate the growth in drone traffic by giving operators the tools to coordinate with each other.
This is MAAP’s fifth year of large-scale UTM testing and its second year in the FAA program. This test series was more complex than anything they’ve conducted before, stress-testing the technology’s ability to handle unexpected events and engaging a range of stakeholders as UTM moves closer to implementation. MAAP, an FAA-designated UAS test site, partnered on the tests with four companies developing UTM solutions: AirMap, AiRXOS (part of GE …