NASA juggles 22 drones in the air at the same time

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Jacob Moschler, operations and data analyst at the University of Maryland Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site, launches a UAV in Bushwood, Maryland. – Alison Nichols for University of Maryland

NASA has completed its most complex drone traffic management test yet, keeping 22 unmanned aircraft aloft across the country using a coordinating platform earlier this month.

Over three hours at six Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) test sites, NASA and operators from the FAA flew 24 drones multiple times, with 22 in the air at one point, and added dozens of virtual flights into the mix to beef up the difficulty.

The mission was to assess NASA’s unmanned aircraft systems traffic management research platform – and it was deemed a success, as it achieved (and surpassed) the minimum 16 simultaneous drone flights.

“We didn’t have any testing problems today,” says Parimal Kopardekar, manager of NASA’s Safe Autonomous Systems Operations project and lead of unmanned aircraft systems traffic management.

The test wasn't a simple matter of flying drones at once and hoping for the best. While engineers at NASA's Ames Research Centre in California built the management platform, operators outside NASA entered flight plans and operations into the system. The platform then checked for conflicts, approved or rejected flight plans and notified operators of any problems.

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Tyson LeRoy and Matt Burton of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership flew unmanned aircraft in Blacksburg, Virginia. – Virginia Tech Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science

And because drones can't fly in rain or high winds, weather conditions had to be monitored across all FAA test sites – Fairbanks, Alaska; Grand Forks, North Dakota; Reno, Nevada; Rome, New York; Virginia Tech’s locations in Blacksburg, Virginia, and Bushwood, Maryland; and Corpus Christi, Texas. Luckily, the weather held at all sites.

The drones varied from quadcopters to miniature airplane-like craft.

Testing the platform in a "geographically diverse way", flight test director Joseph Rios says, were the next step from local drills.

And while the platform is still in its early research stages – we won't be seeing coordinated swarms of drones just yet – NASA plans to have it refined and ready for the FAA to use in 2019.

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