A collaboration between industry partners and regulatory agencies has yielded a software platform whereby drone pilots will be able to identify and communicate with other drones in their vicinity.
From public safety reconnaissance to data-gathering to delivery, potential uses for drones are adding up faster than legalized uses. Without the technical ability to remotely locate and identify all drones in a given vicinity, and thereby avoid safety and privacy concerns, the Federal Aviation Administration has put a moratorium on flying drones at night, above people or beyond a visual line of sight without special permits.
But as of last month, remote identification — and by extension unmanned traffic management — is possible via the InterUSS Platform Open Source Project, hosted by the nonprofit Linux Foundation.
As described in a news release, the InterUSS Platform was co-developed by AirMap, Uber, Wing and the Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA) of Switzerland, in consultation with regulators and standards bodies around the world. The platform enables an Unmanned Aircraft System Service Supplier, or USS, to communicate with others. In effect this means interoperability between drone software, so drone pilots can exchange information about flights and constraints in the airspace. They can find and identify each other’s drones and share where they’re going, without transgressing privacy boundaries by requiring personally identifiable information about the pilots.
Robert van Gool, a spokesperson about robotics and UAV practice through a company called Liberty Comms, described the platform as a downloadable app for giving and receiving telemetry and registry information — what the drone is doing, who it belongs to, what the license number is and whether it has authorization to fly in that area. Verified users in law enforcement get more detailed information.
FAA regulations remain in place, requiring waivers for drones flying at night, over people or beyond the operator's visual line of sight. But until industry advocates succeed in passing legislation to change that, van Gool said the immediate benefit of the InterUSS Platform to the industry is that companies developing apps for drones will now be able to incorporate remote identification, which had formerly been a logistical and safety hurdle for unmanned air vehicles.
If legislation changes FAA regulations to make more types of drone flight legal without waivers, drone app developers who incorporated the InterUSS Platform will have tools ready to go, and the market for them will grow.
He said InterUSS is intended for government agencies, from local police and fire departments up to the federal level. But as an open-source domain, it’s a project to which anyone can contribute.
The platform’s first test in early 2019 involved a small handful of developers, but its second test in September recruited a larger list of participants: AirMap, AiRXOS (part of GE Aviation), ANRA Technologies, CNN, Flite Test, Kittyhawk.io, Uber, UASidekick, Wing and Skyward.
AirMap co-founder Benjamin Marcus said more than 2,500 app developers are using his company’s application programing interfaces and software development kits, and AirMap has been active in NASA’s unmanned traffic management (UTM) research since 2015. But an open-source platform to allow interoperability between so many developers could make a ton of niche innovations a reality for drone users.
“InterUSS is really an outgrowth of those UTM research initiatives, so this has really been a work in progress for almost five years. The InterUSS Platform and recent remote identification demonstrations that we’ve done have been the result of organizing this work into an open-source project that now is managed by the Linux Foundation, and that initiative is about a year old,” he said. “The big value for AirMap is that this allows for the drone industry to grow significantly, because the drone industry has been constrained by the lack of a suitable remote identification system … because people like the FBI and DHS have expressed concern to the FAA that they don’t have a way of identifying drones that are operating over people. For several years now, progress in the drone industry has been slowed significantly by the lack of this system. So now that we’ve developed a suitable system with industry partners, the drone industry is able to progress, and that means more traffic will be using the AirMap platform and our business can grow.”
Wing, a drone delivery-service company owned by Alphabet, started developing InterUSS while its delivery service was taking off thanks to air traffic exemptions and approvals in several jurisdictions. Wing is now a founding member of the Linux Foundation’s Technical Advisory Council to manage the InterUSS Platform, alongside AirMap, Uber and FOCA. In an emailed statement, the company echoed Marcus’ sentiment that all concerned will benefit if the drone industry can start clearing regulatory hurdles.
“The standard is important not only to Wing but to all industry participants, because we now have a consensus framework for exchanging data. (The ASTM committee that developed the standard included approximately 35 industry and regulator participants),” the email said. “This standard provides the foundation for progressing toward standards-based UTM services that enable safe coexistence of operations supported by diverse USSs as well Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) and Ops Over People (OOP).”