One of the barriers to beyond visual line-of-sight drone operations has been the need for safety measures. PrecisionHawk Inc. last week announced that it has received two patents for unmanned aircraft traffic management, or UTM, technologies. The “Automated Unmanned Air Traffic Control System” includes the transmission of real-time flight data from drones to a UTM server before and during flights. The system will help drones avoid collisions with manned aircraft, similar to how human controllers manage air traffic today, said the company.
Raleigh, N.C.-based PrecisionHawk said it serves enterprises with remote sensing using robots and drones, as well as analysis of geospatial (GIS) and other data with artificial intelligence. The company has raised more than $100 million from investors including Constellation Technology Ventures, Millennium Technology Value Partners, Third Point Ventures, and Verizon Ventures.
In 2015, PrecisionHawk introduced the Low-Altitude Tracking and Avoidance System (LATAS) to demonstrate that drones could be integrated into the National Airspace (NAS) safely. It also was the lead institution in the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Pathfinder Program (Focus Area Two) for beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) drone operations, and it received the first nationwide BVLOS waiver.
“We’ve primarily worked with electric utilities to set up large routine asset-inspection programs with drones, machine learning, and AI to help extract value from millions of photographs,” said Tyler Collins, vice president of enterprise accounts at PrecisionHawk and lead developer of LATAS. “We’ve been quite successful, inspecting thousands of miles of power-distribution poles and hundreds of miles of transmission towers.”
PrecisionHawk gets two patents
With thousands of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) taking to the skies, the current manned air traffic control system will not be able to scale to coordinate UAVs and other aircraft, said PrecisionHawk.
“Patents may seem outside the core of our business, but back in 2013, we started looking at industrial applications before commercial flights were common,” Collins told The Robot Report. “It’s a similar need to manned aviation in the early 1900s, which was the Wild West, with nobody coordinating flights. That transitioned into a well-coordinated air traffic control system, and there are now tens of thousands of aircraft now above us.”
One of PrecisionHawk’s UTM patents covers technology for the transmission of real-time telemetry to servers for certain flights. The other involves the transmission of flight plans to a traffic management server to identify potential flight conflicts and alert drone operators if adjustments are necessary.
“We see our patents as the core framework for air traffic control for drones,” said Collins. “Drones already transmit data to their pilots, but it stops there today. If multiple drones are in an airspace with manned aircraft, telemetry is not getting to the drone or the aircraft. It’s really important to have a strong situational picture of what’s going on in a localized area.”
“PrecisionHawk looked at a UTM system being able to do what manned air traffic controllers do today — having a picture of everything in the airspace, including altitude, speed, and flight plans,” he said. “We’ve learned from manned aircraft that it’s not 1 to 1. We’re starting with all the basics to connect and communicate with tens of thousands of drones or hundreds of thousands of aircraft at low altitude.”
UTM to use existing networks
Among the technical challenges for UTM systems is networking because of bandwidth and range limitations. “The industry could build completely new networked solutions for drones to communicate with a centralized system,” Collins said. “But we can leverage existing infrastructure, with a security and reliability layer built on top of that, including standard communications for drones and the UTM system.”
“We don’t have to lock ourselves into a single network; there’s satellite for higher altitudes or less-inhabited areas and cellular infrastructure in more urban areas with layers built for reliability,” he said. “With a cellphone, it doesn’t matter if a video takes time to buffer, but air traffic can’t afford latencies like that.”
PrecisionHawk is open to partnerships to advance UTM. “We’re looking at how AT&T deployed FirstNet, a completely private cellular network for emergency response, for how to build criticality and network priority higher than that of a YouTube video,” explained Collins. “With manned aircraft and radar, an image will show up on screen within milliseconds. We want to work with network owners to build in that performance and criticality.”
Steps toward managing air traffic data
In addition to the real-time telemetry and network, a key component of the UTM patents is the server and analytics infrastructure.
“PrecisionHawk hasn’t decided if it’s going to develop a fully fledged traffic management server,” Collins said. “We’re good at developing highly provable models, which is how we achieved the BVLOS waiver in the U.S. We’ve prototyped a framework that works, and our goal is to get other companies involved, such as Airbus and Boeing, that are good at scaling the data analytics workload.”
“We’re supporting standards bodies, continuing to prove out capabilities, and working with regulators, NASA, and universities,” he added. “Our goal is to help the industry get there as a whole under a framework that makes sense.”
How much is AI a part of UTM collision avoidance? “There is a place for it,” responded Collins. “An avoidance metric can’t solely rely on machine learning, since it’s never 100% accurate. But the FAA wants as close as possible, and it does have a place in predicting potential collisions.”
“We could use machine learning to give the probability of a near event, and from there, we can use the higher horsepower of real-time avoidance and path planning,” he said. “It could be implemented to lighten the workload of the air traffic controller and increase the level of safety.”
Stakeholders and partners
At the same time, there are many stakeholders, including government regulators concerned with safety, drone operators, network owners, and startups. How has PrecisionHawk worked with all of them?
“While we hold patents, the UTM protocols are not proprietary,” Collins said. “We’ve found willingness across all organizations to work closely together over the past four years. NASA started initiatives around these unmanned air traffic control systems. We’ve also done some testing with the FAA and Verizon. It’s neutral research bringing people together, and then we’re working with standards bodies on performance standards.”
“Currently, the National Airspace is all owned and operated by the federal government,” he noted. “Some think it could be managed at the city or state level, which might be good for their profits but is bad for rules. We support UTM that is centralized. It’s what makes the most sense for the frameworks being proposed and for research and development.”
“We want to approach UTM not through FAA regulations but through enablement by standards organizations,’ Collins said. “By drafting performance-based standards and then the FAA allowing more advanced operations, this still allows for innovation from aircraft manufacturers and drone users.”
“We’re looking for partners in the space who think the same way we do to get UTM, but we’re still a good ways from deploying it,” he said. “We want to partner with big aviation companies, other startups, agriculture, and delivery companies to deploy UTM in a way that makes sense.”
UTM uses will require coordination
Although not all unmanned aerial vehicles would need to use the UTM system, the technology could enable wider use of drone services in agriculture, construction, emergency response, infrastructure inspection, and deliveries, said PrecisionHawk.
‘It’s a highly collaborative effort,” said Collins. “This could support medical deliveries, flying cars, and other applications. A lot of operations, like drone inspections, don’t require BVLOS, but we see UTM ultimately tracking and coordinating drone deliveries.”
“PrecisionHawk has a waiver for drone flights two miles from the pilot, which is a substantial increase from the three-quarters of a mile for visual line of sight,” he said. “We see UTM as an enabler for new types of flights by integrating with existing systems for manned aircraft, like ADS-B [Automatic Dependent Surveillance — Broadcast] replacing radar.”
“We’ve been communicating our thoughts on UTM, and we can now point to the patents and say, ‘This is what direction we think is best for industry, stakeholders, and regulators,'” he sad. “We’re continuing to push on standardizing approaches and working with industry. Making UTM real would get us to cool things with drones more quickly.”