In late February, OneSky supported American Aerospace Technologies, Inc. (AATI) in successfully completing the NASA SIO Demonstration for Beyond-Visual-Line-of-Sight (BVLOS) commercial pipeline inspection operations in the NAS. The demonstration marked a critical first step in making a safety case to the FAA for Type Certification.
The NASA SIO demonstration series is a public-private partnership designed to demonstrate commercial applications and accelerate the integration of drones into the National Airspace System (NAS). In this demonstration, AATI and its technology partners OneSky, Sagetech and Echodyne, and expertise from MIT Lincoln Laboratory and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, demonstrated safe BVLOS flight for oil & gas pipeline inspection, getting critical feedback from NASA engineers and airspace officials at the FAA, as the primary mission.
OneSky’s Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) flight portal provided situational awareness, including real-time visualization of cooperative and non-cooperative DAA information and UTM services for the AATI lead mission flying its AiRanger UAS, equipped with onboard radar and ADS-B for detect and avoid (DAA). The almost 2-hour flight - launched and landed at the Elk Hills-Buttonwillow Airport in Kern County, CA, operated by a remote pilot based at a ground control station.
Providing the Interface for Shared Data
The project demonstrated technology that enables BVLOS flight without the need for visual observers on the ground. The OneSky UTM Portal was able to provide remote stakeholders with a rich visual understanding of the long-distance drone flight by integrating many sources of data.
“One of the biggest challenges we face is that no single data source is going to give you what you need to operate BVLOS,” says Kyle Nave, Senior Aerospace Technologist at OneSky. “It’s only the integration of numerous different layers of information that’s going to get us to the threshold where BVLOS flight can operate safely.”
“We were able to integrate with the AATI flight controller, display the information, and then overlay additional data,” explained Kyle. “AATI has been really forward thinking – they recognized the need for these tools in months, not years.”
Ali Etebari, VP of Engineering and General Manager of American Aerospace ISR, the division of AATI that manufactures the AiRanger, has high hopes for the integration of AiRanger with UTM based environments as a key enabler. “Integration with UTM based environments is a necessary ingredient in scaling operations from 1 to 10 to 100 vehicles, enabling remote pilots in a single operator control center to operate multiple BVLOS vehicles safely in multiple locations across the globe simultaneously. OneSky has been instrumental in demonstrating the ease by which this can be accomplished.”
The OneSky UTM Portal allowed situational awareness of the pipeline flight path, overlaid with real-time weather radar feeds and other surveillance sources to display local air traffic. An additional goal of the exercise was to explore new Detect and Avoid (DAA) technology: Echodyne’s Echoflight onboard radar technology to detect non-cooperative air vehicles in the airspace and Sagetech’s MXS ADS-B Transponder for detection of cooperative air vehicles.
The OneSky user interface allows stakeholders to see all of this data in a way that enables decisions for safe and efficient flight. Users can actually see weather patterns as they move into the flight path: and they can understand the obstacles that radar detects in the airspace.
“At this point, users generally get a radar circle and blips on the screen - but it doesn’t help you understand the data in 3D space, relative to where you are flying,” Kyle says. “Echodyne has been incredibly supportive of our integration efforts, and now, we’re able to turn those radar blips into actual objects with a latitude/longitude position and velocity in 3D space that you can see.”
Stakeholders in the Field and in the Office
With the OneSky UTM portal, stakeholders can watch the flight in real-time from anywhere with an internet connection: a necessity for true BVLOS operations. “The VP of engineering was able to watch the flight in real-time through our portal from almost 3,000 miles away, and was able to keep abreast of the flight as it happened,” says Kyle.
Access to real-time flight data is equally important for flight operations flown within line of sight. “Pilots are busy,” says Garrett McKelvey, Implementation Engineer at OneSky. “It’s important not just for people who are remote to have access to all of the flight data, but also for the ground crew and other project participants who need to be aware of what the pilots are seeing during a mission. Remote workers and on-site personnel can also benefit from the situational awareness our system provides."
UTM Lessons Learned
Field operations like the SIO demonstration are helping OneSky to build future-proof solutions that work today. “We’re able to learn from the field – everything that happens is documented and goes into our development going forward,” says Kyle.
“Special challenges come out when you actually are able to get out into the field. Simulated data is essentially perfect: but when you’re actually in the field, there’s a lot more noise in radar feeds. This view shows us that in real life there is a lot of noisy data to work through – and the way to do that is in combining multiple data sources.”
The opportunity to test the system’s capabilities in a real world setting and meet challenges is exciting, and so is the feedback the development team gets from industry partners. “There’s a lot of validation of our approach,” Kyle says. “Integration of different data sources into a single interface is critical. Seeing that weather radar on the map with the flight icon and other air traffic is something that isn’t available to most users.”
“Being on-site and getting a firsthand understanding of how others can use our system – it creates an instant product feedback loop. It’s certainly been a rewarding experience and we’re grateful to have been invited to participate in the NASA SIO Demonstration.” adds Garrett.
UTM technology is still relatively new, but trials are proving that they are reliable and effective. “All of these products are still in a relatively nascent stage – but we’ve now had several demonstrations that were essentially flawless,” says Kyle.
“It’s really only in working with these real-life scenarios that you’re able to develop and mature these systems - systems that are ultimately going to be responsible for airspace safety and really human lives.”