July 02, 2019

UAS / Unmanned Traffic Management

We need a new approach to managing the volume and variety of drones   

The drone industry is growing rapidly to help solve important challenges in transportation, commerce, and public service. The safety and security of our airspace will depend on technology to plan and manage these flights. However, drones are used in different ways. Each drone has different capabilities, different flight characteristics and different operating models that continue to rapidly evolve. Many drones fly in ways that are different from traditional aircraft.

Air traffic management for traditional aviation depends on manual technologies and procedures, such as voice-based communication, individual flight controllers, and take-off or landing approvals. That model cannot support the expected volume and diversity of drones. As the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) notes: "Given the number and type of UAS operations envisioned, it is clear that the existing Air Traffic Management System cannot cost-effectively scale to deliver services for UAS." 

The variety of operations and the speed of change means that a “one size fits all” approach to Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM or “U-space”) is infeasible. A single, centralized traffic management system will be unable to scale in response to this growth, or meet the needs of diverse operators. 

Responding to these problems, a number of regulators and industry groups have developed a digital model for UTM. The model is based on research in collaboration with the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and has been demonstrated through a number of trials. These UTM capabilities enable safe and secure operations today with the flexibility to support more diverse and more complex operations in the future. With appropriate oversight, UTM can help to accelerate the adoption of new safety technologies at a lower cost.


UTM is an ecosystem in which various UAS Service Suppliers (USS) help operators to plan and manage their flights safely. These USS are developed by industry and can be specialized to support the unique requirements and safety cases of particular drone operations.  

Multiple USS communicate with one another to avoid conflicts between flights, and to ensure equitable access to the airspace.  When necessary, the USS may also communicate with other systems, such as air traffic control, to facilitate access into controlled or restricted airspace.

The UTM Ecosystem

Safety through automation. USS are highly automated services, and help to avoid human errors in planning or operating a drone. They provide a number of important functions, such as helping drone operators to plan, monitor, and record their flights. USS can verify that the flights comply with regulations and airspace restrictions. They support separation from other drones, and will eventually support separation between drones and manned aircraft.

Safety through interoperability. Multiple USS need a common standard for communicating the intentions and actions of operations that those USS support. Technical bodies, such as ASTM International, are developing standards for Discovery and Synchronization Services. These enable a USS to discover other USS that support flights operating in a given area; share flight plans with those USS; and ensure separation between flights.  

Interoperability also enables the remote identification of drones by helping to share identification data between USS and third parties, such as the public or law enforcement. Bodies such as ASTM International are developing a standard for remote identification via a USS (“network remote ID”).

Safety through oversight. Authorities have an important role in ensuring that USS meet required standards before they can operate. This includes an approval framework developed in collaboration with key stakeholders, including the National Civil Aviation Authority,  Air Navigation Service Providers, and industry representatives. The relevant authority will perform three essential functions in this framework: 

  • Setting performance-based rules: Authorities will describe the safety outcomes that USS must provide based on the risk and complexity of particular drone operations. These rules should be performance-based: authorities will define required outcomes, but not the manner in which they are achieved. For example, these rules would include the conditions under which data must be shared with authorities.
  • Identifying authoritative data sources: Authorities will identify relevant, authoritative data sources, such as aeronautical data and flight restrictions, to ensure that USS operate on the basis of common and trusted aviation information.
  • Approving UAS Service Suppliers: Authorities will oversee initial validation to approve a USS. USS should implement a Safety Management System for ongoing validation of supplied services. 

UTM in practice

UTM capabilities exist today, and have been demonstrated through live operations. Wing has successfully participated in the majority of UTM pilot projects for NASA and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). These demonstrations include: 

  • Planning flights clear of terrain and obstacles; 
  • Communication among multiple USS to plan and deconflict overlapping flights in a shared area;
  • Remote identification to provide necessary information to the public and authorities.  

One demonstration involved 50 flights over 70 minutes in a high-density area of 500m2 with six different operators and two USSs. 

Wing’s USS, OpenSky, supports our delivery operations on three continents. These UTM capabilities enable Wing to perform complex operations, including one pilot managing multiple aircraft beyond visual line of sight, over populated areas, to deliver packages on demand. 

Wing has worked with ASTM and industry to develop standards for interoperability, including ASTM’s Discovery and Synchronization Service standard.  Wing helped to launch the open source InterUSS Platform, which provided the framework for USS interoperability in the majority of NASA and FAA demonstrations. The InterUSS Platform will be compliant with the upcoming DSS standard.  

Oversight in practice

Regulators, Air Navigation Service Providers, and industry partners around the world have worked together to develop an approval framework for the UTM ecosystem based on operational needs.  

In close coordination with air traffic control and industry, the FAA introduced a framework for approving USS with the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) system, which provides automated approval to access controlled airspace around airports.  The LAANC system was developed and operationalized within a year at low cost via partnerships with industry. LAANC has enabled 100,000 digital airspace authorizations to date. 

Following a similar collaborative model, Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) is introducing a USS approval process as part of its Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) ecosystem. Wing encourages other authorities to consult and collaborate when developing an oversight framework.

The path forward

Safety is our first priority. And we believe that aviation should benefit everyone. Every operator should be able to access the airspace in a safe and responsible way. With UTM technology, we can safely share the skies. 

After years of hard work, there are now more answers than questions about how to manage diverse and high-volume drone traffic. The industry, NASA, the FAA and other regulators have validated the interoperable UTM model through rigorous trials. In the process, Wing has learned many lessons. We welcome the opportunity to share these with other stakeholders.

Wing continues to invest in developing UTM capabilities that enable our vision of a safe sky that is accessible to everyone. We are excited to work with authorities to realize that vision.

Contact us at utm@wing.com to start a conversation.