NASA lurches toward 2014 unmanned aircraft competition

NASA picks Development Projects to run $500,000 unmanned aircraft Centennial Challenge

NASA today said it was moving ahead with its plan to hold a Centennial Challenge completion next year that will ultimately result in future unmanned aircraft technology.

NASA said it picked Development Projects of Dayton, Ohio, to manage the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Airspace Operations Challenge competition that will focus on a variety emerging drone technologies but particularly the aircraft's ability to sense and avoid other air traffic. 

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While NASA is providing a $500,000 prize,   Development Projects will finalize rules and begin detailed preparations for the challenge, eventually registering competitors. The first competition to demonstrate team entries is expected in May 2014.

In 2012 NASA said was planning this Challenge in collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Air Force Research Lab.  The type of challenge NASA said it is envisioning would be no easy task as it is looking to address one of the more complicated drone issues - sensing and avoiding other aircraft.

"NASA is considering initiation of an Unmanned Aircraft Systems Airspace Operations Challenge focused on finding innovative solutions to the problems surrounding the integration of UAS into the National Airspace System. The approach being considered would require competitors to maintain safe separation from other air traffic while operating their UAS in congested airspace, under a variety of scenarios. This will be accomplished through the use of sense and avoid technologies, as envisioned in the Next Generation Air Transportation System," NASA said.

NASA said the Challenge would be divided into two parts.  The Level 1 Competition - would focus on a competitors ability to fly 4-Dimensional Trajectories to provide a reasonable expectation that the drones will be where they are supposed to be, when they are scheduled to be there, successfully employ Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B), maintain safe separation from other ADS-B equipped air traffic, and operate safely in a number of contingency situations. ADS-B in equipped aircraft are able to receive messages broadcast from other aircraft and the air traffic management system that describe the current position, heading, and speed of nearby air traffic."

The Level 2 Competition would go beyond the first level and add a "requirement to maintain safe separation from air traffic not equipped with ADS-B and a requirement that the vehicle be able to communicate verbally with the Air Traffic Control system under lost link conditions. Competitors would be required to have a working Hardware-in-the-Loop Simulation for their flight vehicle. The HiLSim would be used at the beginning of the competition, prior to flight, to verify that a competing UASs flight operators, ground software, and flight software exhibit the proper responses in a variety of safety-critical situations. It would also be used to verify that a team is capable of performing the basic tasks required by the competition. HiLSim test suites would be provided prior to the competition to allow competitors to verify they are in compliance with contest requirements during development."

The competition addresses a number of concerns brought up in a recent Government Accountability Office report which said communications and effective system control are big challenges for unmanned aircraft developers if they want unfettered access to US airspace.

The bottom line for now seems to be that while research and development efforts are under way to mitigate obstacles to safe and routine integration of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace, these efforts cannot be completed and validated without safety, reliability, and performance standards, which have not yet been developed because of data limitations, the GAO concluded.

The GAO report noted that current domestic uses of drones are limited to activities such as law enforcement, forensic photography, border security, and scientific data collection. According to an industry forecast, the market for unmanned aircraft could be worth $89 billion with the associated research and development for production estimated to be $28.5 billion over the next 10 years.

The main issues include the ability for drones to avoid other aircraft in the sky; what backup network is available and how should the machine behave if it loses its communications link and other network issues.

From the GAO report:

Avoidance: To date, no suitable technology has been deployed that would provide UAS with the capability to sense and avoid other aircraft and airborne objects and to comply completely with FAA regulatory requirements of the national airspace. However, research and development efforts by FAA, DOD, NASA, and MITRE, among others, suggests that potential solutions to the sense and avoid obstacle may be available in the near term. The Department of the Army is working on a ground-based sense and avoid system that will detect other airborne objects and allow the pilot to direct the drone to maneuver to a safe location. The Army has successfully tested one such system, but it may not be useable on all types of drones, the GAO stated

Control: Ensuring uninterrupted command and control for both small and large UAS remains a key obstacle for safe and routine integration into the national airspace. Since unmanned aircraft fly based on pre-programmed flight paths and by commands from a pilot-operated ground control station, the ability to maintain the integrity of command and control signals are critically important to ensure that the drone operates as expected and as intended, the GAO said

Lost links: In a "lost link" scenario, the command and control link between the UAS and the ground control station is broken because of either environmental or technological issues, which could lead to loss of control of the drone. To address this type of situation, unmanned aircraft generally have pre-programmed maneuvers that may direct the machine to hover or circle in the airspace for a certain period of time to reestablish its radio link. If the link is not reestablished, then the drone will return to "home" or the location from which it was launched, or execute an intentional flight termination at its current location.

Network security: The jamming of the GPS signal being transmitted to the UAS could also interrupt the command and control of drone operations. In a GPS jamming scenario, the aircraft could potentially lose its ability to determine its location, altitude, and the direction in which it is traveling. Low cost devices that jam GPS signals are prevalent. According to one industry expert, GPS jamming would become a larger problem if GPS is the only method for navigating a UAS. This problem can be mitigated by having a second or redundant navigation system onboard the aircraft that is not reliant on GPS, which is the case with larger drones typically operated by DOD and DHS.  Encrypting civil GPS signals could make it more difficult to "spoof" or counterfeit a GPS signal that could interfere with the drone navigation. Non-military GPS signals, unlike military GPS signals, are not encrypted and transparency and predictability make them vulnerable to being counterfeited, or spoofed., the GAO report stated.

Radio spectrum:  Progress has been made in obtaining additional dedicated radio-frequency spectrum for drone operations, but additional dedicated spectrum, including satellite spectrum, is still needed to ensure secure and continuous communications for both small and large drone operations. The lack of protected radio-frequency spectrum for unmanned operations heightens the possibility that a pilot could lose command and control of an aircraft. Unlike manned aircraft-which use dedicated, protected radio frequencies-UAS currently use unprotected radio spectrum and, like any other wireless technology, remain vulnerable to unintentional or intentional interference. This remains a key security and safety vulnerability because, in contrast to a manned aircraft in which the pilot has direct physical control of the aircraft, interruption of radio transmissions can sever the drone's only means of control, the GAO said.

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