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NASA partners with Thales in push for drone airspace management

NASA has formally brought Thales on board in its effort to develop an unmanned air vehicle traffic management (UTM) system that can be handed over to the US Federal Aviation Administration in 2019.

Under this Space Act Agreement, Thales will collaborate with NASA to research, develop, test and evaluate low-altitude UAV airspace control for flights below 400ft.

The NASA agreement follows Thales's selection by the FAA last year to support its efforts to simplify the process for small UAV operators to comply with US regulations, and eventually integrate their operations into US national airspace. The Paris-headquartered electronics group describes its UTM expertise as being in the development of a "digital platform" able to connect operational, safety and security needs of drone operators.

Thales's expectation is that UAVs will initially operate in tight airspace corridors – for example for parcel delivery – distinct from ordinary airspace, as such a high degree of automation will be needed to cope with changing conditions.

Thales is already working with other NASA partners at the FAA's test site, at Griffiss International airport in Rome, New York. It is supporting the FAA’s System Wide Information Management and Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability programmes.

Olivier Rea, head of UTM solutions at Thales, says the agreement gives the company access to the US market as a "full provider". Since such deals are typically signed with US companies, he adds: "It’s a big step for us."

NASA's UTM development scheme assumed a high degree of automation to monitor individual vehicles, leaving human operators to make strategic decisions related to initiation, continuation, and termination of airspace operations.

One objective is to ensure that only authenticated UAV could operate in the airspace. Field testing at FAA sites has been ongoing since 2015. In October 2016, trials were completed for a Technology Capability Level 2 – focused on beyond line-of-sight operations in sparsely populated areas, with dynamic adjustments to availability of airspace and contingency management.

In Spring 2018, evaluations will focus on technologies that maintain safe spacing between co-operative (responsive) and non-co-operative (non-responsive) UAVs over moderately populated areas.

Subsequent testing will focus on operations in higher-density urban areas for tasks such as news gathering and package delivery, along with management of "large-scale contingencies".

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