Can unmanned aircraft mix safely with commercial aviation?

FAA teams with GE to figure how to meld commercial aviation with drones

A Boeing unmanned aircraft
The Federal Aviation Administration this week 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, said Chris Beaufait, president of Avionics for GE Aviation. 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.

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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.

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 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.  
  • Unmanned aircraft have the capability to deliver nuclear, biological, or chemical payloads, and can be launched undetected from virtually any site. In response to the events of September 11, 2001, entry doors to passenger airplane cockpits were hardened to prevent unauthorized entry. However, no similar security requirements exist to prevent unauthorized access to unmanned aircraft ground control stations-the unmanned system equivalent of the cockpit. Security is a latent issue that could impede unmanned airplane developments even after all the other challenges have been addressed, according to one study.  
  • Because unmanned aircraft have never routinely operated in the national airspace system, the level of public acceptance is unknown. One researcher observed that as unmanned aircraft expand into the non-defense sector, there will inevitably be public debate over the need for and motives behind such proliferation. One expert we surveyed commented that some individuals may raise privacy concerns about a small aircraft that is "spying" on them, whether operated by law enforcement officials or by private organizations, and raised the question of what federal agency would have the responsibility for addressing these privacy concerns.

While those issues are just a few outlined in the report, the GAO said a number of activities are also ongoing to address concerns.  The GAO report states some of those activities include:

The DoD plans to spend over $7 billion in research, development, test, and evaluation funds for unmanned aircraft between fiscal years 2007 and 2013. Data from these efforts could facilitate FAA's development of a regulatory framework to allow unmanned aircraft to have routine access to the national airspace.

  • The FAA has budgeted $4.7 million for fiscal years 2007 through 2009 for further unmanned systems research on topics such as detect, sense, and avoid; command and control; and system safety management. NASA, FAA, and others have conducted tests to determine the capabilities of and potential improvements to detect, sense, and avoid technology. For example, in 2003, NASA installed radar on a manned aircraft that was equipped for optional control from the ground. The tests indicated that the radar detected intruding aircraft earlier than the onboard pilot, but also revealed the need for further work on the onboard sensing equipment to ensure adequate response time for the remote pilot. According to a summary of the lessons learned from these tests, the results showed some promise, but indicated that much work and technology maturation would need to occur before the tested system could be deemed ready for operational use.
  • The FAA has established a 12,000 square mile unmanned system test center to provide airspace for testing and evaluating unmanned aircraft and to provide data for use in developing regulations. FAA expects to obtain additional data from increased coordination with the DoD. However, FAA has not yet analyzed the limited data that it has already accumulated on recent unmanned operations in the national airspace system, citing resource constraints. To address expected workload increases, FAA is introducing more automation into its work processes and has granted DoD authority to operate small unmanned systems weighing 20lbs or less, over its installations without receiving prior FAA approval.

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