UAS Integration at the Winchester Apple Blossom Festival
For the second year in a row, NX Aviation supported a major UAS integration event that was centered around the Winchester, Virginia's annual Apple Blossom festival on a single Saturday. Last year, NX developed the Concepts of Operations (CONOPS), Safety Analysis, and Standard Operating Procedures for the event. We then followed it up by being the Air Bosses for the event. There were many lessons learned and the event was overall deemed a success.
It was successful enough that we were able to stage another event. The 2022 event was a commercial-public event. Public safety UAS were patrolling in the area, while a commercial provider delivered hot chicken sandwiches via UAS. For simplicity this year, the event focused only on public safety UAS, but we brought in multiple agencies to participate.
This event was created mostly to showcase not just integration, but also a peice of software that has been created and adopted in the State of Virginia - the Flight Information Exchange, or the FIX. The Virginia FIX is designed as a UAS Air Traffic Management system. Users can create operating areas and fly their aircraft in that area. Further, hazards to flight can be put into the system for awareness of other pilots. Hazards can include towers, power lines, etc. It can also include (and does) airport/heliport information and flight tracks to and from those Airports. Winchester has a small General Aviation airport to the south, and so we had the approach and departure pathways for instrument traffic depicted on the map. This was amazing for situational awareness.
The town of Wincester was divided into 15 sectors with takeoff and landing areas for each of the teams. For traffic deconfliction, only certain teams were allowed into certain sectors.
One other element of the FIX this year was the incorporation of near-real-time UAS monitoring and ADS-B. What this allowed was for all participating, and non-participating UAS to be seen on the map as they were powered on and flown. ADS-B integration also allowed for us to monitor manned traffic in and out of the nearby airport. The depiction of the aircraft was useful to monitor the aircraft that were within our span of control and keep them within the confines of their cleared operating areas.
NX Aviation's Role
NX Aviation's role was to be the Air Boss for the event. Last year, the City put us up in their emergency operations center. This year, the state lent us their Emergency Operations trailer. In there, we set up in a kiosk with multiple monitors displaying the FIX, flight radar, and a few surveilance cameras to look outside the vehicle. We were also monitoring the local CTAF/Unicom at the airport for added awareness of the local traffic. This would become important later in the event.
As the Air Boss we had de-facto control over the local airspace as depicted above with the different sectors. NX Aviation was responsible for ensuring safety of all the participating UAS in the area. We had grounding authority for all participant UAS as well. Our team of two was supplied by the Virginia Department of Emergency Management with field radios and a network so that we could talk with all pilots and observers in the area. The public safety pilots were a combination of Civil Air Patrol and Police. All observers were provided by CAP's Virginia Wing. Also present were representatives from the FAA looking at how we performed these operations for a future integration effort.
The Air Boss was also a node of communication back to the event Emergency Operations Center. We had an EOC representative with us for the duration of the event. In many cases we took some tasking directly from the EOC and disseminated that out to our UAS operators in the field.
While the Pilots breif was conducted on time, it took a minute for the rest of the teams to get stationed and bring up the FIX. In this case, it had to do with deploying people to the area with little internet for the first time. Once online, we in the Air Boss trailer were able to open the Air Space to UAS ops at 1130. For the next 5 hours, we had as many as 10 UAS operating in the area at a single time. Each UAS was confined to a single area and had observers for additional awareness. Each team reported back to us in the trailer when they launched their UAS, and we could see it in real-time as it launched and flew around in the areas we expected. A few times, non-participant UAS were found on the area and we were able to monitor them, with the help of our deployed observers, and avoid any hazards to our own operations.
While that coordination was in and of itself a win (we can boast NO safety incidents that day!), the real win came through coordination with the EOC. Early in the event we started to receive taskings, and the Air Boss team began sending our aerial assets to perform on these real-world mission. The highlights included:
Searching for a potential vehicle on fire along the parade route
Locating a missing person based on a description (who we found)
Locating a vehicle that had allegedly violated local ordinance
Through this, we were able to routinely, safely, and repeatedly provide the kinds of Public Safety aerial support that is useful to the first responders in the event of a disaster or issue. Perhaps the best moment was when we were monitoring CTAF at Winchester and a Cirrus reported a departure heading towards the town. Using the FIX we saw his flight path, and were ready to call a safety landing when the observers reported the aircraft. Within moments, we were able to re-open the airspace and resume normal operations. Thanks to the FIX, our sitational awareness was so good that nothing caught us off guard, even confined to the trailer. None of this would have worked without that software.
As the NX Team, we demonstrated a couple key things that can be brought to bear with other similar projects.
Development of safety plans and standard operating procedures that work over multiple events and multiple years
Command and Control experience of aerial assets in a confined location
Work with public safety agencies to accomplish the mission
Direct integration with advanced technologies and the ability to provide feedback and improvements to those technologies.
Continuing to lead the way on new aviation technologies.
Overall, its difficult to classify this event as anything other than a complete success. We look forward to doing it again next year. And if you would like to have a similar event, please contact us at email@example.com.