Are UTM Drones The Future of Commercial UAV Operations?

By Susan Becker, Marketing Director | Modified on June 11th, 2023

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What is UTM (Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management)?

The explosive growth of the UAS (unmanned aerial systems) industry, coupled with advances in autonomy and the adoption of BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight), is leading to a future where national airspaces are filled with thousands of drones, undertaking a myriad of essential tasks. These operations, encompassing deliveries, drone utility inspection, aerial photography, and much more, will in turn drive a requirement for increased airspace services.

Right now, the numbers are low enough that commercial drone flights can largely be managed on an individual basis, but eventually, new and standardized systems will be required that can handle and organize the increased level of traffic in the skies. Due to the sheer amount of expected drone operations, these services will require a significant amount of automation, and thus will need to scale beyond current ATM (air traffic management) services which largely rely on human-in-the-loop operations.

UTM (UAS traffic management, or just unmanned traffic management), a term originally selected for the initial efforts by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and NASA to explore such concepts, is widely used to refer to ecosystems that will manage drone operations at scale in low-altitude airspace. For the U.S. national airspace system, “low-altitude” is defined as less than 400 feet above ground level.

The general concept of the FAA’s UTM relies on third-party suppliers to provide the required services, thus easing the burden on the government. The FAA will define constraints and regulations that a service provider will have to adhere to in order to be recognized as an authorized UTM drone service supplier.

It is highly likely that drone operators will be legally required to use an authorized UTM service provider in order to carry out commercial flights. Some UTM drone components offered by the provider will be required, and others may be optional extras that provide additional quality of service.

UTM Drones Provide Safety, accountability, and Remote ID

The primary reason for implementing UTM for drones is to allow vast numbers of unmanned aircraft to safely share the skies with manned aircraft and with each other. UTM will provide a number of layers to ensure the continued safe separation of all these flying entities. These may include:

  • Performance authorizations that ensure all UAS are suitably equipped and able to safely undertake their intended operations
  • Airspace authorizations that grant drone operators access to controlled airspace and provide records and general situational awareness of the intended operations within a geographical area
  • Strategic deconfliction services that ensure that drones from multiple operators do not end up on a collision course with each other
  • Real-time information and notifications concerning weather, airspace restrictions, emergencies, bird activity and other notable events
  • Data exchange between aircraft to support onboard or ground-based DAA (detect-and-avoid) systems

In addition to a robust and multi-layered safety approach, UTM drones also need mechanisms for traceability and accountability for when things could or do go wrong. The leading proposed solution to this, which is already being implemented by the FAA, is known as Remote ID, a form of “digital license plate” for drones.

Remote ID requires all drones to provide certain information that will allow both the aircraft and its pilot to be identified by law enforcement or government agencies. This information, which may be either broadcast continually to any receivers within range, or sent to a service supplier for further dissemination to the authorities, may include aircraft serial number, drone location and velocity, and timestamp.

To find out more about Remote ID requirements in both the U.S. and European Union, and their importance for BVLOS, read our Internal Review on Remote ID.

The current state of UTM Drones

NASA has undertaken a multi-year UTM research program that was split into four TCLs (technical capability levels) and concluded in 2019, culminating in a successful demonstration that showcased how drones could be integrated into urban areas. The demonstration used cellular communications to coordinate multiple UAS and UTM drone system users, allowing drones to safely take off, land, and maneuver around buildings.

In 2020, the FAA completed the UPP (UTM Pilot Program), which explored the development of cloud-based enterprise services for the implementation of initial UTM capabilities, and also tested Drone Remote ID. The FAA has also launched the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC), a collaborative effort with various members of the drone industry that provides automated airspace authorizations for drone pilots who wish to gain access to controlled airspace near U.S. airports. LAANC is currently available at 726 airports across the country.

The European Union’s version of UTM is known as U-space, and is being managed by the SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research) Joint Undertaking. Like the FAA’s UTM, U-space relies on certified third-party service providers. Each EU member state will decide for itself whether to implement a centralized, distributed, or mixed model for the provision of U-space services.

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Critical connectivity for UTM Drone communication

It is evident that joining and utilizing the services of a UTM service provider, and thus operating commercial and BVLOS drone flights at scale will be impossible without a reliable connectivity solution for your drones. A variety of different data must be exchanged between the drone, operator, and service provider, and just as importantly, the connection must be rock-solid in order to maintain maximum safety in a sky full of other aircraft.

Elsight’s Halo connectivity platform meets all your drone data link needs for the busy airspaces of tomorrow’s commercial drone operations. Harnessing up to four unique connections from multiple carriers, the network-agnostic solution uses advanced cellular bonding to ensure high reliability and critical redundancy. The compact and lightweight Halo platform has already been proven in a variety of BVLOS drone platforms and applications around the world and will ensure that you are granted performance authorizations by your local regulatory body.


What services will UTM provide for drone operators?

UTM (unmanned/UAS traffic management) will provide a variety of services designed to provide increased levels of safety and to allow large numbers of drones to safely share airspace with manned aircraft and each other. These services may include airspace authorizations, strategic deconfliction, real-time weather and emergency notification, and data exchange for collision avoidance.

How can drones and manned aircraft safely share the same airspace?

A number of situational awareness technologies can help drones and manned aircraft to co-exist safely within the same airspace. These include information broadcasting systems such as ADS-B and Remote ID, and sensor-based detect-and-avoid systems. On a larger scale, UTM (unmanned traffic management) systems will allow flights to be coordinated effectively.

To find our more about how Elsight can help you prepare for full compatibility with unmanned traffic management and the next generation of commercial drone operations, please get in touch!

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