The ability of regulators to safely and efficiently integrate millions of commercial and pleasure drones into low-altitude airspace will depend on the success of a strategy familiar to virtually everyone in the freight industry: exception management.

That is the view of Parimal H. Kopardekar, the director of NASA’s Aeronautics Research Institute. Keynoting FreightWaves’ DroneWaves Summit on Friday, Kopardekar said that NASA, in refining its Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management (UTM) air traffic system, is shifting from what he called a “management by permission” to a “management by exception” approach The latter term identifies potential airspace issues and directs users to steer clear of them. 

The conversion to management by exception is a “game-changer” in managing low-altitude airspace that will be shared by multiple types of equipment, Kopardekar said. It will be a critical factor as drone operations expand to fly out of the line of sight, fly over high-density population and commercial areas, and eventually fly autonomously without the guidance that’s commonplace today, he said.

The management-by-exception initiative is supported by the digital sharing of each drone user’s flight plans, giving each user the same situational awareness of the airspace, Kopardekar said.

NASA is also working on a “cooperative traffic management” plan under which third parties will be allowed to offer ancillary services in support of drone operators, Kopardekar said.

The agency has been vigilant about managing noise problems associated with drone expansion, he said, adding that responsible private sector operators have been very proactive in addressing noise-abatement issues.

In his role, Kopardekar is responsible for exploring aviation trends related to aviation in the areas of autonomy, aeronautics manufacturing and advanced air mobility. He also serves as NASA’s senior technologist for Air Transportation Systems and principal investigator for the UTM project.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has ultimate jurisdiction over drone operations. However, NASA has worked with the FAA to provide research, development and testing of unmanned aircraft system operations in low-altitude airspace. NASA leads the UTM project, which is composed of more than 100 partners in government, industry and academia.