NASA will in August begin testing the first in a four-part series of web-based air traffic management capabilities for a growing fleet of commercial unmanned air systems in the USA, says an agency official.

The agency’s Safe Autonomous Systems Operations (SASO) project seeks to adapt a rigid air traffic system for manned aircraft to suit the needs of a potentially more diverse and dynamic fleet of UAVs.

“Our mantra is flexibility where possible and structure where absolutely necessary,” says Parimal Kopardekar, NASA’s manager for SASO.

The first “build” of a web-based prototype should be ready to begin testing in the national airspace in three months, he says. It is designed only for use in remote areas and relies on procedural separation tactics and geofenced exclusion zones around airports and other types of restricted airspace.

The second build of the system is scheduled for delivery next year and extends coverage to slightly more densely populated areas and beyond line of sight operations. UAV operators would be able to create a route trajectory in the web-based tool, and the system would deconflict with other UAVs attempting to fly on the same route.

Two more builds of the system are also planned that anticipate more vehicle operations and real-time monitoring of exclusion zones, he says.

NASA’s objective is to establish order as more UAVs enter the airspace in the same way that the Federal Administration Administration assumed control of the national airspace for manned aircraft six decades ago.

“You still need some rules of the road - lanes, stop signs and so forth,” Kopardekar says. “This will provide a virtual framework in the sky rather than random routes.”