NASA eyes prototype system to control drones in national airspace

NASA envisions partnering to build a command/control system for unmanned aircraft

One of the chief technological reasons there aren't more unmanned aircraft in our national airspace is their lack of serious sensing, command and control capabilities.  NASA wants to help change that.

Today the space agency said its Glenn Research Center is looking for potential sources and partners for the design and development of a Command and Control communication (C2) system prototype for unmanned aircraft.

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According to NASA: "This prototype radio system is targeted for use in all Unmanned Aviation System classes, from those weighing less than 55 lbs flying below 3,000 ft. up to and including those weighing greater than 1,320 lbs flying above 18,000 ft. The primary focus is operations within the US National Airspace System, but these systems should be capable of operations outside the U.S. The UAS C2 system is to support control and non-payload communications between the Unmanned Aircraft and the UA control station. This could include the following types of information/traffic types: telecommands; non-payload telemetry; navaid data; voice relay; data relay; sense and avoid data relay; airborne weather radar data; and non-payload situational awareness video."

NASA said terrestrial and satellite based technologies for unmanned aircraft are under consideration in the standards bodies, but it wants to focus on developing a terrestrial system for testing.

From NASA: "The results of this testing may necessitate the modification of the prototype radio(s) and/or proposing modifications to the draft performance requirements. The prototype design and development process will be one which follows a proven path to certification. The intended partnership between NASA and one or more industry partners will jointly: develop the design(s) to meet the requirements, develop prototype radio hardware, perform laboratory testing, and execute flight testing of the prototype radio system in a relevant environment."

As I have noted several times in this blog, there are serious technical issues to be resolved before drones can safely fly with other manned aircraft in the national airspace. The Government Accountability Office for example has noted:

  • The lack of protected radio frequency spectrum for unmanned operations heightens the possibility that an operator could lose command and control of the plane. Unlike manned aircraft, which use dedicated, protected radio frequencies, unmanned aircraft currently use unprotected radio spectrum and, like any other wireless technology, remain vulnerable to unintentional or intentional interference. This remains a key security vulnerability for unmanned aircraft, because in contrast to a manned aircraft where the pilot has direct, physical control of the aircraft, interruption of radio frequency, such as by jamming, can sever the plane's only means of control. One of the experts we surveyed listed providing security and protected spectrum among the critical airplane integration technologies.
  • Many unmanned airplanes, particularly smaller models, will likely operate at altitudes below 18,000 feet, sharing airspace with other objects, such as gliders. Sensing and avoiding these other objects represents a particular challenge for unmanned aircraft, since the other objects normally do not transmit an electronic signal to identify themselves and FAA cannot mandate that all aircraft or objects possess this capability so that the aircraft can operate safely. Many small unmanned do not have equipment to detect such signals and, in some cases, are too small to carry such equipment
  • The effort to develop the Traffic Alert and Collision and Avoidance System (TCAS), used widely in manned aircraft to help prevent collisions, demonstrates the challenge of developing a detect, sense, and avoid capability for unmanned airplanes. Although FAA, airlines, and several private-sector companies developed TCAS over a 13-year period, at a cost of more than $500 million, FAA officials point out that the designers did not intend for TCAS to act as the sole means of avoiding collisions and that the on board pilot still has the responsibility for seeing and avoiding other aircraft. FAA officials also point out that TCAS computes collision avoidance solutions based on characteristics of manned aircraft, and does not incorporate unmanned aircraft's slower turn and climb rates in developing conflict solutions. Consequently, FAA officials believe that developing the detect, sense, and avoid technology that unmanned aircraft would need to operate routinely in the national airspace system poses an even greater challenge than TCAS did.

Recently, a couple of US senators backed an amendment that would increase the number of test sites for such access from  4 to 10. US Senators Charles Schumer of New York and Ron Wyden of Oregon are looking to tack on an amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization bill that would significantly increase the number of test sites in the National Airspace System for unmanned aerial vehicles. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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