As the director of the NASA Aeronautics Research Institute and the research agency’s senior technologist for air transportation systems, as well as the principal investigator for the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management (UTM) project, Parimal Kopardekar is a busy man.
Kopardekar is the inventor of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management (UTM), a system to manage the flights of small unmanned aircraft systems at a low-level – crucially in a way that stops them colliding with each other and other aircraft. The development of UTM has won him plaudits and recognition throughout the world, although his work modernizing air traffic management (ATM) stretches back many years and he has been involved in several key innovations.
Kopardekar, who goes by his “user-friendly” name of PK is working hard to ensure UTM realizes its full potential, while still developing projects to further the reach of aviation in other areas. ATI talked with PK at an industry event in Washington DC in December about his route into the industry, progress deploying UTM and the importance of developing sustainable aviation.
Q: How did you start working AT NASA?
A: In 1993 while I was doing my PhD in industrial engineering I was looking for a dissertation topic and attended a conference in Cincinnati on systems safety. At that conference was a gentleman from the FAA, Mark Smolinski. He talked about how complicated air traffic management is with so many controllers – over 6000 pieces of equipment, the pilots and aircraft. And it fascinated me, I thought, wow, this is a really complex systems problem that I want to work on. I approached the FAA and asked to work on ATM for my PhD. I did half the time working on my PhD and half the time doing part-time jobs. That’s how I started in the domain, and I’m still here making improvements.
Q: How have things changed with ATM?
A: The problem has got more complex and more interesting over the years. The problems from 25 years ago – achieving more efficiency and preventing delays have evolved. 9/11 happened and the delays were not an issue. Then the new entrants came in the next decade – drones, commercial space and now urban air mobility, and the problem has become more complicated. It’s fascinating.
Q: What does NARI do?
A: The NASA Aeronautics Research Institute’s focus is on identifying new trends, technologies, domains and partnerships that NASA Aeronautics is not doing yet. We look out for workshops, collaborations, technology, assessments and identify problems where we can help. We look for the interesting problems that we are not doing that we should be doing.
Q: Does NARI look at early research or commercial developments?
A: It varies and that’s the fun part of it. In some cases, it’s work at a very low TRL, like advanced air mobility. In other areas it could be an application of current high TRL work.
For example, the wildfires last year cost US$1.8 billion and lasted for months. We fight fires with a tactical air group supervisor in an aircraft, watching out of the window and directing air traffic, with fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters dropping water and retardant. It’s eyeball traffic management and as a result, when the smoke shows up, all visibility goes down. It means that fire fighting from the air is only effective for four to eight hours a day.
What if we can expand that to 24 hours a day? When the fires happen, you get temporary flight restrictions. Maybe we can start using drones, equipped with water and fire retardant. A UTM system out of a box can manage the traffic and that way we can keep fire fighting for
24 hours a day. You wouldn’t have to worry about low visibility. It’s a great example of NARI’s work, working out how we can solve a problem with a project we have been doing already.
Q: When is this technology being tested?
A: The project has already been formed. We have done a workshop, identified the need and the strategy for deploying a potential solution. We’ve put it forward and NASA Aeronautics started a program on October 1, 2022.
Q: How do you describe your job?
A: I’m a researcher who cares about complex systems, particularly their efficiency. I care about air traffic and airspace operations because it is so essential to growing aviation. It’s my personal dream to have every zip code in the globe touched by aviation – drones, eVTOLs, whatever is developed in the future. I investigate how to achieve that, about what the barriers are to that kind of scale of aviation.
ATM is such a complex, interesting problem and is always evolving. I love the domain. My background is industrial engineering and manufacturing, so I care about scaling and efficiency, what supply chains look like. How we make things work in the airspace.
Q: What’s it like working out of NASA Ames?
A: Ames has so many interesting capabilities, like the largest wind tunnel in the world and the vertical motion simulator that astronauts use for training. We have the Future Flight Center, flight simulators and the air traffic management laboratory. NASA has been doing research in air traffic for last 40 years, primarily at Ames and Langley.
Q: What is the most exciting research coming out of Ames?
A: The shifting of the paradigm from traffic management by automation to management by exception is the most exciting thing I am associated with. It opens up so many opportunities. There are other things we have achieved. Arrival departure surface management, integration and efficient arrivals and departures. There is a lot of interesting work going on at NASA Langley. I’m very excited about autonomy, about working out how to enable it with large-scale autonomous aircraft.
Q: Are we realizing the potential of drones and UTM?
A: I think about this a lot, because I don’t think we have realized the full utilization of UTM yet. We are still getting through the process of rule-making. UTM is a collection of services. Remote ID services has already been checked out. We proposed surveillance, communication and people are beginning to offer that. We have proposed data, weather and 3D maps, which some people are offering.
What I would really like to see is the network version of unmanned traffic management. That’s where the true potential of UTM will be realized – when everyone is connected and sharing their intent, so they know how to stay away from each other. Right now, Remote ID cannot be used for that, it’s only used for security and identification. Once everybody is on the network and exchanging information we can realize the potential.
Q: Is the major barrier to UTM data sharing?
A: It is the step that we are working on now. We have a standard showing how you will share the data. What we want to do is demonstrate how that will work, then leave behind the capabilities so that operators can send in their trajectories and stay away from each other as part of normal daily use. We’re at the demonstration and testing stage, the next stage is operation.
Q: Can you describe your approach to innovation?
I teach innovation at the Northeastern University Business School in Boston, Massachusetts. Innovation is many things. It’s mindset, a set of processes and techniques. But it’s also a practice, like yoga – you can learn it from each other and teachers and practice it.
Q: What do you like best about your job?
A: NASA gives people like me tremendous flexibility. We have the space to create new ideas and to try different things. There are so many different roles – I’ve been a researcher, project manager, a director. There are opportunities to create new things. You would be hard pressed to find another organization like it, where you can pick a problem and convince people that it is the right one to work on. In industry, you will most often work on the problems they care about, not you.
Q: Do we do a good enough job bringing talent into aerospace?
There are areas for improvement, but it helps that our mission is so exciting. I try hard to get new people, both experienced or fresh out of school to join us. Going back to your first question, I want to see other people feel that same spark of interest in aviation that I did.
Sure, not everyone is going to say they want to be an air traffic management researcher. But the main challenge is that aviation is multidisciplinary. Maybe a student wants to be an expert at flight controls, system integration or human factors, maybe they want to write algorithms for machine learning and AI, there are lots and lots of ways you can contribute.
The opportunities are boundless. But we compete with other industries who may pay better. People come to NASA because we care about the mission, and like that we care about what we do.
Q: Do you think the industry can achieve zero emissions aircraft?
A: Offsets and trading emissions are fine to maintain the status quo. But if you really want to reduce the carbon footprint you need to think differently and have different propulsion systems, different operational concepts. For example, we may need different trajectories to avoid contrails at certain times of the day.
Overall, I think we are heading in the right direction. We have strong leadership at NASA who believe that reducing emissions is important. And that direction attracts young people to come into the organization, who want to work on this problem and feel it is important.
Before his current role as director of NARI and principal investigator for the UTM project, Kopardekar managed NASA’s Safe Autonomous System Operations Project, which developed autonomy related concepts, technologies and architectures that will increase efficiency, safety and capacity of airspace operations. Prior to that, he managed the Next Generation Air Transportation Systems (NextGen) Concepts and Technology Development Project.
He has initiated several innovative research projects including reduced crew operations, net-enabled air traffic management, autonomy for airspace operations, Shadow-Mode Assessment using Realistic Technologies for the National Airspace System (SMART NAS).
Kopardekar is the winner of the 2020 NASA Government Invention of the Year and the 2018 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, known as the Oscars for the US federal workforce, in the “Promising Innovations” category for his work on UTM. In 2017, he was named among the 25 most influential people in the drone industry.
He has published over 50 conference and journal papers with three best paper awards, delivered more than 20 keynote talks at national and international conferences. He is a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and is the recipient of numerous NASA awards including the Outstanding Leadership Medal and Engineer of the Year. He holds a doctorate and master’s degrees in Industrial Engineering and a bachelor’s degree in production engineering.