FAA adds brainpower to mix unmanned aircraft with commercial aviation

Insitu, New Jersey National Guard join GE Aviation and FAA on unmanned aircraft research

Facing a number of technical challenges, the Federal Aviation Administration said today it added another research project designed to better understand how unmanned aircraft can be brought safely into the national airspace. 

The FAA set a two-year research and development agreement with Insitu - an independent subsidiary of Boeing and the New Jersey Air National Guard that will help  FAA scientists to study and better understand unmanned aircraft design, construction and features.  Researchers will also look at the differences in how an air traffic controller would manage an unmanned aircraft vs. a manned aircraft. 

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In addition, Insitu will provide two of its ScanEagle drones and related support hardware and data to the FAA for the study. The ScanEagle drone can fly more than 24 hours at a time and has been used in many civil applications, including search and rescue operations, fire and flood monitoring and evacuation efforts conducted in hazardous weather, the FAA stated. 

Insitu will train FAA pilots and support staff to fly and maintain the system. The flight testing will take place over the New Jersey Air National Guard's Warren Grove Range, the FAA stated. 

Unmanned aircraft now fly within the national airspace system only under certificates of authorization, or FAA waivers. The waiver process is issued for public entities and determined on a case-by-case basis, with most operations segregated from other air traffic. More than 1,500 types of unmanned aircraft are in production worldwide, so it is important to establish the parameters to enable them to operate within the national airspace system, safely and efficiently, the FAA stated.  

UAS are cleared to fly in restricted airspace, including the military airspace at Warren Grove Range, owned and operated by the New Jersey Air National Guard. Researchers will look at the differences in how an air traffic controller would manage an unmanned aircraft vs. a manned aircraft, by integrating the ScanEagle system into the FAA's Technical Center air traffic control simulations and studies, the FAA stated.

The FAA signed a similar research agreement with GE Aviation last year that is looking into a way to safely mix the burgeoning amounts of unmanned aircraft with commercial aviation. 

With this research the FAA and GE said they want to accomplish aviation first by completing the research to facilitate flight of an Unmanned Aircraft System with an FAA certified, trajectory-based flight management system.  Such trajectory systems let aircraft fly from point-to-point rather than the zig-zag routes most commercial aircraft fly today.  The system is a key component of the FAA NextGen flight management system. 

The FAA also said this week it opened a new laboratory where scientists will use computer simulation technology explore how future systems such as unmanned aircraft and new navigation concepts will perform in the agency's future airspace structure.  As part of the research, GE is working with unmanned aircraft builder, AAI to demonstrate flights with its Shadow tactical unmanned aircraft.  

Integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace will be no easy task. The Government Accountability Office last year laid out the difficulties stating that routine unmanned aircraft access to national airspace poses technological, regulatory, workload, and coordination challenges. 

A key technological challenge is providing the capability for unmanned aircraft to meet the safety requirements of the national airspace system. For example, a person operating an aircraft must maintain vigilance so as to see and avoid other aircraft. However, because the airplanes have no person on board, on-board equipment, radar, or direct human observation must substitute for this capability. No technology has been identified as a suitable substitute for a person on board the aircraft in seeing and avoiding other aircraft, the GAO report stated. 

Additionally, the aircraft' communications and control links are vulnerable to unintentional or intentional radio interference that can lead to loss of control of an aircraft and an accident, and in the future, ground control stations-the unmanned airplane equivalent to a manned aircraft cockpit-may need physical security protection to guard against hostile takeover, the GAO said.    

The GAO also listed a number of other issues including: 

  • 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. FAA officials believe that an acceptable detect, sense, and avoid system for airplanes could cost up to $2 billion to complete and is still many years away.   

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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