PrecisionHawk patents UTM technology

Could the race to control unmanned Urban Air Mobility have started?

American drone services company, PecisionHawk has been awarded two patents for technologies it has developed for unmanned aircraft system traffic management (UTM).

The patents, titled ‘Automated Unmanned Air Traffic Control System,’ are designed to enable collision avoidance between drones and manned aircraft. This is achieved by transmitting real-time flight data from drones to a UTM server prior to and while in-flight.

UTM is an air traffic management ecosystem under development for autonomously controlled operations of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) by the USA’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), other federal partner agencies, and stakeholders from the drone industry.

They are collaboratively exploring a framework to enable drone operations beyond visual line-of-sight at altitudes under 120 metres above ground level in airspace where FAA air traffic services are not provided. UTM is separate from but complementary to the FAA’s Air Traffic Management (ATM) system. UTM development will ultimately identify services, roles/responsibilities, information architecture, data exchange protocols, software functions, infrastructure, and performance requirements for enabling the management of low-altitude uncontrolled UAS operations.

In a drone industry that has been symmetrically fractured between two schools of thought on where collision avoidance software should be installed – with some supporting the idea of upgrading the drones themselves to the level of being able to sense other manned or unmanned traffic in the vicinity, PrecisionHawk’s patents seems to subscribe to the other side of the debate; where the traffic management system is located in a central system where drones constantly check in to see whether the skies are still clear.

The first patent is for technology that allows drones to send real-time telemetry to flight servers to avoid collisions while in the air. In simple terms, a drone continuously broadcasts its location to ground servers via a radio link which the company did not specify. At the control centre, the ground system compares these data with other real-time position reports and alerts a drone operator if a collision is impending so action can be taken. It’s similar to the current interaction between pilots of manned aircraft who take direction from air traffic controllers to avoid crossing paths with other airplanes.

“The second patent helps drone operators avoid collisions by transmitting their flight plan to a traffic management server prior to a flight to see if there is a potential for flight conflicts,” PrecisionHawk said in a statement. “The traffic management server receives similar data for other drones and manned aircraft. If there is potential for collision, the traffic management server sends an alert to the drone so the operator can adjust the flight plan.”

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The patents themselves have not indicated what types of onboard or ground systems drones and servers will use, merely calling them “computing devices.” Details of the data transmitted, its mode (cellular, satellite or even some future technology like photonic communication), standard instructions, traffic priority and latency have also not been mentioned.

PrecisionHawk claims to be an early pioneer in the UTM space, having introduced the Low Altitude Tracking and Avoidance System (LATAS), designed to provide flight planning, tracking, and avoidance for every drone in the sky using real-time flight data transmission based on existing worldwide cellular networks. PrecisionHawk researched and developed LATAS to show that integrating drones into the National Airspace (NAS) could be done safely, which would enable broad drone operations.

As the lead institution on the FAA’s Pathfinder Program (Focus Area Two), the company was also responsible for conducting research to determine operational strategies and technology solutions for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations, which research was the reason why PrecisionHawk received the first nationwide BVLOS waiver.

“These new patent awards are the latest in PrecisionHawk’s long history of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) innovations that have helped industry unlock the potential of commercial drone operations in the U.S.”

Dr. Allison Ferguson, PrecisionHawk Director, Airspace Research said; “It’s clear that the more you know about the real-time environment you’re operating in, the more safely and efficiently you can operate. The more important question is how does a drone operator reliably get that situational awareness? What information is needed and when? LATAS was a key enabling technology for the Pathfinder efforts, which were aimed at determining answers to precisely those questions.”

With the value of drones to various industries rising in this digital age, PrecisionHawk thinks a robust, automated UTM system should be in place to handle the expected traffic with remote identification to identify UAS. Manned air traffic control system will not be able to meet the needs of UAS operations and the burgeoning urban air mobility (UAM) industry. PrecisionHawk’s latest patents will contribute to the efforts to bring a safe, secure UAS traffic control system online, according to Tyler Collins, Vice President Enterprise Accounts at PrecisionHawk, who invented the UTM technology.

“The use of drones is becoming more ubiquitous across a number of enterprise industries,” Collins said. “UTM is a critical piece of infrastructure that will enable more types of drone operations as the industry continues to grow and more complex operations, such as broad BVLOS, become inevitable. We see UTM being born out of necessity just as the current air traffic control system was in the 1930s. UTM is a natural next step to ensure safety of the airspace and those who share it.”

PrecisionHawk is not the only firm in the drone industry with what could be described as a broad patent. Last February, Nevada-based drone delivery company Flirtey patented a Parachute Deployment System (PDS) for unmanned aircraft. There is likely to be more jostling for patents by drone companies, as they seek for a niche of their own by patenting the foundation pillars of a drone services market whose landscape researchers say will be a $63.6 billion gold mine by 2025.

PrecisionHawk provides enterprise drone services, from infrastructure inspection to analytics and flight management, to what it says are some electric utility companies in the USA. It also counts ExxonMobil, John Deere, Monsanto and Verizon among its list of clients.


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