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FAQs: NASA’s Drone Traffic Management Research in Reno and Corpus Christi

An illustration of the many potential uses for drones, from rural settings to big cities.

The potential uses for drones that will benefit ordinary people are growing, from commercial opportunities to rescue operations, in agricultural zones, urban centers and everything in between. Since 2015, NASA has been researching what it will take to build a nationwide system to manage this new, low-altitude air traffic. Here are the basics you’ll want to know about the project’s 2019 flight tests, happening in Reno, Nevada, and Corpus Christi, Texas.

What is NASA doing with drones in Reno and Corpus Christi?

Experts predict that hundreds of thousands of commercial drones will be registered for use in the U.S. by 2020, along with some two million for recreation. NASA is conducting research that will help build a system to manage this future drone traffic. Researchers are designing and testing the principles and technologies that could be used in such a system.

The project is called UTM, short for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (or UAS) Traffic Management. UAS are more commonly known as drones. Results from the project’s flight tests will help researchers understand what’s needed to fly drones together safely in complex environments.

What is UTM?

The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management research project is led by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, in partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration, other federal agencies and dozens of academic and commercial partners. The goal is to study what it will take to make UAS operations – or drone flights – possible in low-altitude airspace.

NASA and its partners are developing, testing, evaluating and refining the UTM prototype system. NASA works closely with the FAA and has been transferring results, recommendations, requirements and technology as they become ready. The FAA will consider how to leverage the transferred information within a future operational system.

While coined at NASA, the term “UTM” has been adopted widely and may sometimes refer to efforts beyond NASA’s scope.

What does UTM do?

UTM is a system that includes software, vehicle technologies, personnel, rules and other elements that:

  • Provides information to drones, their pilots and organizations coordinating the exchange of information. This includes notifications about what’s happening in the airspace (for example, weather alerts) and details about other flights in the area.
  • Allows those same users to exchange data with each other, the FAA and public and safety entities.
  • Allows drone operators to submit flight plans to carry out a specific mission in low-altitude airspace.
  • Determines how to safely enable single or multiple drone operations, either within visual line of sight of the pilot or beyond visual line of sight.

Will NASA be flying drones in the city?

Certified drone pilots will operate the aircraft in controlled areas of the city that are blocked to vehicle and foot traffic. The flights will simulate different scenarios involving multiple drones flying at once above city streets and between buildings. The researchers will collect data from the aircraft, drone pilots and commercial partners about the operation of the UTM system.

Why is NASA interested in drones?

NASA is America’s aeronautics research agency. Research at NASA is helping transform the airspace system to support new vehicles and provide citizens confidence that every flight is safe and secure. Drones will have many uses in the urban setting, performing jobs too dangerous, dirty or dull for humans to do. Applications with benefits for citizens include assisting emergency responders, delivering packages, monitoring traffic, inspecting power lines, bridges and other infrastructure, and more. A drone traffic management system will support a new economy of diverse services in our cities made possible by drones.

Is NASA working with any local groups for this research on drones?

Yes, two partner organizations managing FAA-designated test sites will coordinate the 2019 flights:

  • For Reno: Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems
  • For Corpus Christi: Lone Star UAS Center of Excellence & Innovation

To ensure public safety and awareness, NASA is collaborating with local, state and federal authorities and conducting public outreach in support of this research.

What safety precautions are being taken to protect my community?

All traffic will be routed around the area when drones are flying. Vehicles, bikes and pedestrians will not cross paths with these small research aircraft.

All drones used in the flight tests have been inspected to confirm they are ready to fly. They are programmed with flight paths that keep them separated in the air, and they contain on-board technology that ensures they stay in their assigned range and avoid both obstacles and other drones. Visual observers and safety pilots also make sure the UAS behave as expected. These pilots can take control of the drone if there is a problem with the vehicle or the primary pilot. For example, if the link to the primary pilot is lost, the safety pilot can take control, providing an additional layer of safety.

The UTM project’s drones will not interfere with commercial or general aviation flights in the area. The UAS flight tests will fly below 400 feet, per the FAA’s test approval. Other types of aircraft fly mainly outside of the city center and mostly above 500 feet. In addition, the test sites are equipped with ground radar stations that would detect crewed aircraft, if any unexpectedly entered the testing area.

Weather conditions will be monitored by local weather sensors. If adverse conditions, like a storm or strong winds, are forecast, all drones will be landed before the weather deteriorates.

Will the drones be noisy for the local community?

A maximum of five drones will be flown at one time, so noise will be very limited. Some research data about how the software system is operating is collected using 15 computer-simulated drones within the program, which, of course, make no noise at all!

Will the aircraft flying in the city interfere with my cell phone or wifi?

No, the effects of the UTM flight tests should not be any different than the effects of devices already present – the many routers, phones and 4G devices around us in the city. This testing adds just a handful more such devices to the area.

What kind of privacy precautions will exist around flying drones in cities?

The scope of NASA’s project is purely to understand the technical requirements of a system that could manage drone traffic in the future. Further regulations will come from regulatory agencies, like the Federal Aviation Administration.

Media contacts:

NASA Ames Communications

Darryl Waller (, c: 650-318-7325, w: 650-604-2675)

Tiffany Blake (, c: 650-316-0153, w: 650-604-6749)

NASA Headquarters Communications

J.D. Harrington (, 202-358-5241)