Last year, the FAA wasn’t enthusiastic about UTM and I could detect a real “not invented here” vibe among the FAA folks who attended.

The FAA didn’t like NASA telling them how to manage air traffic. All I can say is—“Wow. What a difference a year makes!” The mood at the Syracuse UTM conference was completely different.

So what happened? Why the change at FAA? We could blame it on Congress. Congressional budget language was clear that NASA and the FAA must work together to develop UTM and the language prompted the aggressive
FAA/NASA timeline.

However, the biggest impact came from reality settling in on the FAA’s Air Traffic (AT) organization and their acceptance of UTM as a commercial enterprise. I know lots of folks bash the FAA over UAS, but you must look at UAS from the FAA’s perspective. Our air traffic system is overloaded as is. Congress hasn’t given the FAA a significant increase in controller manning in years. Congressional proposals to privatize AT funding have only added to their stress. True, the expected efficiencies from NextGen are being realized, but are just being erased by ever increasing airline traffic.

If you had an air traffic control system that struggled to do 10,000 simultaneous flights, would you want to increase that figure a thousand-fold with UAS? What about providing radar coverage for non-cooperative targets below 400 feet? The FAA left the air surveillance radar business for ADS-B tracking years ago and even then, the old radar surveillance system just tracked Cessna-sized targets above 10,000 feet. UTM’s Ground Based Sense and Avoid (GBSAA) algorithms need radars that can track bird-sized targets below 400 feet.

Who is going to pay for all those radars?

The FAA will continue developing beyond line of sight (BLOS) rules as the research comes in and they will require GBSAA sensor coverage coupled with UTM for part 107 BLOS waivers for a wide variety of UAS operations. The FAA will commercialize both UTM and GBSAA sensor coverage. In the future, commercial UAS operators will pay a tiered subscription fee to a commercial UTM vendor. A basic fee will cover the traffic management portions of UTM; geofencing, flight monitoring, etc. They’ll be a higher fee for BLOS operations requiring GBSAA coverage. A smart vendor will also package data link relay into this deal.

The Syracuse UTM conference was more proof that UTM is here to stay. The FAA and NASA are serious about transitioning UTM into FAA-approved UAS operations. I’m very sure the FAA will turn over UTM to a commercial provider because it’s the only affordable way to field UTM with the sensors it needs to keep our skies safe. If the FAA and NASA put cyber security at the top of the “To-Do” list for UTM, we’ll have a safe, affordable UAS traffic management system.

If you are interested in UTM you need to read this article by James Poss, USAF Maj Gen (Ret). I am happy that Mr. Poss accepted my invitation on LinkedIn – because along the way I learned that he is now the Executive Director of the ASSURE FAA UAS Center of Excellence Team at Mississippi State.
As best as I can tell, this is as close to the real skinny as we are likely to get
anytime soon.
That said, it is important to keep in mind that the FAA may well have to defend or expedite their current plans from any pressure the new administration chooses to put on the FAA to expedite commercialization. And they will have to find a way to address internal criticisms from within the DOT about how they’ve gone about regulating UAS so far.