New Research: ADS-B and Its Use for Small Drone Traffic Management

What the heck is ADS-B and why should I care?

I asked myself that question a year-and-a-half ago, because I kept seeing the term ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast) come up in discussions and articles on unmanned aircraft traffic management (UTM).

You may have seen it yourself in the UTM solutions proposed by Amazon, Google, PrecisionHawk, and NASA, with NASA trying to coordinate it all. They all know that someday unmanned vehicles will share airspace at low altitudes with general aviation equipment such as airplanes, helicopters, and gliders. Agreeing on a safe and efficient system that will manage both manned and unmanned traffic is a vital concern for the FAA, NASA, private companies, and academic users.
NASA’s UTM Fact Sheet summarizes the concern that there is currently no infrastructure system in place for UAS flight:

“A UAS traffic management (UTM) system for low-altitude airspace is needed, much like today’s surface vehicles that operate within a system consisting of roads, lanes, stop signs, rules, and lights, regardless of whether the vehicle is automated or driven by a human… Civilian use of UAS has many growing applications: product delivery, surveillance security, agriculture, film industry, mapping and planning, real estate, and search and rescue.”

This was never envisioned when the FAA conceived the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) for manned aviation, which is due for implementation across the U.S. in stages between 2012 and 2025 and proposes to transform America’s ground-based air traffic control system to a satellite-based one. So, here we are looking for an infrastructure solution to low-altitude flight management, and the mistake may be that we are trying to solve it with an “all-altitude” flight management solution.
Regardless of the origin, all of these system proposals all have one thing in common – ADS-B. This technology is the key element for the system ‘tracking’ and reporting a drone’s position to other aircraft.

But is it right for all small UAS operating in Class G airspace?

With that question in mind, we conducted an in-depth research study and have just released it: ADS-B and Its Use for Small Drone Traffic Management.

The study is both qualitative and quantitative. The qualitative portion includes information gleaned from academic sources as well business sources — including interviews with aircraft avionic vendors working on ADS-B solutions for all size UAS. Data collected for the quantitative portion study comes from a survey we conducted over the web in August 2015.

The study gives six key insights and seven recommendations. For example, it finds ADS-B is a complex topic that includes a myriad of acronyms (such as “ADS-B” itself), frequencies, and technical concepts. These important details need to be well understood in order to be discussed and adapted. It also finds the small UAS community does not fully understand the issues of ADS-B “Out” and seems to know very little about how ADS-B “In” works. This insight is supported from the statistics we gathered in our survey.
We also gathered statistics about perceptions of current ADS-B transponders. Most survey respondents felt current ADS-B units are too expensive, too big, and too heavy – and for the most part, they are right. Over half had a concern about power consumption – an important issue for small drones since most don’t have a lot of power reserve. To be fair some avionics vendors do have or are working on cheaper, smaller, lightweight units specifically for the small drone market. They’re also working to solve the power consumption issue. These vendors are listed in the report.

The study:

determines the practicability of using ADS-B for use in small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) from the perspective of owners and operators

analyzes if ADS-B is the right solution for small drones operating in low-altitude airspace

identifies ten major issues with current ADS-B technology that become even more concerning once you start putting transponders on a small drone flying at a low altitude

informs about recent innovations, technical limitations, and integration attempts

evaluates how well commercial drone service providers and operators understand the issues of ADS-B
calls out the traffic management issues that need to be addressed if ADS-B is used and integrated with other alternative technologies

The report is a great primer for those who want to understand the technology and what impact it might have on the commercial drone industry. It provides fresh information for industry veterans, entrepreneurs and investors, veteran avionics vendors, and drone manufacturers of all kinds. The full text of the report is 37 pages and contains the most salient industry statistics illustrated by 18 figures.

You can find out more about the report and how to get it here.

If you have questions about what’s in the report or would like to comment on it after reading it write me [email protected]

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Colin Snow
Colin Snow is CEO and Founder of Skylogic Research, LLC (also known as Drone Analyst®), a research, content, and advisory services firm for the commercial unmanned aerial systems (UAS) industry. Colin is a 25 year technology industry veteran with a background in market research, enterprise software, electronics, digital imaging, and mobility. His experience includes aerial photography as well as making, programming, and piloting remote control aircraft. Colin holds an MBA from Florida Atlantic University and is a member of all major UAS industry groups including: AUVSI, RCAPA, and AMA.