Air Force research to meld unmanned/manned flight

Air Force looking for technology to ease unmanned/manned flight integration

the unmanned future
The Air Force today said it was soliciting research on a variety of new technology needed to integrate unmanned aircraft into general airspace. 

The Air Force and federal agencies obviously insist that before any unmanned aircraft are allowed in the commercial airspace they must be able to perform the same essential functions as a pilot of a manned aircraft with respect to collision avoidance capability in all manner of aircraft safety operations.    

The Air Force is looking to spend about $2.4 million on research that begins to explore what will be necessary to achieve successful unmanned and manned flightspace integration. 

Such research is bound to be complicated.  Last year the Government Accountability Office issued a report that outlined the difficulties the Air Force and others will face in mingling the manned and unmanned airspace worlds.  

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.    

There are other issues as well, the GAO report states, 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 Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, in a 2006 survey of its membership, found that unmanned aircraft's inability to see and avoid manned aircraft is a priority concern. 
  • 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. 
  • 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. 

Meanwhile in August the Federal Aviation Administration signed a research and development agreement with GE Aviation to come up with a way to safely mix the burgeoning amounts of unmanned aircraft with commercial aviation. 

With this research the FAA and GE hope 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, GE Aviation stated. 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. 

As part of the research, GE will be working with unmanned aircraft builder, AAI to demonstrate flights with its Shadow tactical unmanned aircraft.  Simulations will be conducted at the FAA's William J. Hughes Technical Center beginning this fall and will continue for two years. 

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