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NASA: Assured Autonomy for Aviation Transformation

NASA's Aerospace Research Mission Directorate on NACA's 100th Anniversary

 

 

They’re nearly here: By the end of FY 2015 – Sept. 30, 2015 – Congress has mandated that U.S. airspace above 400 feet, currently reserved for piloted aircraft, must also be accessible to unmanned aircraft. The provision, included in the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) 2012 budget authorization, applies to military, commercial, and privately owned aircraft.

In a series of FAA-sponsored public meetings about the emergence of UAS in the national airspace, Americans have overwhelmingly supported the use of these systems for purposes such as crop-dusting, delivering goods, and humanitarian aid – but the meetings have also revealed widespread misconceptions about the technical and legal status of these systems.

Unmanned aircraft or “drones,” of course, are already operating in American skies, in military airspace and on patrols of the nation’s borders. NASA’s own Ikhana – an MQ-9 Reaper, acquired by the agency in 2006 – made a public appearance on Dec. 5, 2014, when it captured and sent out real-time video of the re-entry and splashdown of the Orion spacecraft after its historic first spaceflight.

By the end of the 2013 calendar year, the FAA had also granted waivers to more than 500 public agencies to use unmanned aircraft for purposes including law enforcement, firefighting, search and rescue, and surveillance of valuable strategic assets such as power lines and pipelines.

In referring to these aircraft, aviation experts, including those at NASA, prefer the more precise term “unmanned aerial systems,” or UAS, to reflect the fact that an unmanned craft, to date, is more than just a drone flying unattended in the sky: Like all drones flying today, it’s tethered via communications link to a pilot and crew on the ground, and many unmanned aircraft require further scrutiny. In the waivers it grants to public agencies, the FAA stipulates: “Because UAS technology cannot currently comply with ‘see and avoid’ rules that apply to all aircraft, a visual observer or an accompanying ‘chase plane’ must maintain visual contact with the UAS and serve as its ‘eyes’ when operating outside airspace restricted from other users.”

In a series of FAA-sponsored public meetings about the emergence of UAS in the national airspace, Americans have overwhelmingly supported the use of these systems for purposes such as crop-dusting, delivering goods, and humanitarian aid – but the meetings have also revealed widespread misconceptions about the technical and legal status of these systems.

It’s unlikely, given the limiting factors now existing for unmanned flight, that a swarm of drones will have taken to the skies on Oct. 1 of 2015. In order to introduce unmanned systems to the higher altitudes of U.S. airspace, the FAA needs a more complete understanding of how they will communicate with other aircraft, minimize risks to piloted aircraft and people on the ground, avoid violating the privacy of American citizens and organizations, and authenticate that they are flying their assigned missions.

To make these assurances, the FAA is relying in part on the expertise residing in NASA’s four aeronautics research centers, which carry out the strategic vision articulated by its Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) in the summer of 2013: in part, to enable higher levels of automation and autonomy across the aviation system.

 

The UAS in the NAS Project

The United States’ is the busiest airspace in the world: According to the FAA, more than 21.5 million commercial flights took place in 2013 alone. The nation’s current air traffic control system – which consists of ground-based radar, control towers, onboard transponders and navigation devices, and the software, networks, and radio communications that connect them and manage the movement of aircraft – has made accidents and other serious incidents increasingly rare: Between 2010 and 2013, there were no fatalities among the 2.94 billion passengers who flew on scheduled commercial flights in the United States.

Despite its sturdy effectiveness, however, the nation’s legacy air traffic control system is outdated, and it’s in the midst of an upgrade. Ground-based, line-of-sight radar signals degrade over long distances. They can’t penetrate obstructions such as mountain ranges, and update only once every four-and-a-half seconds, which requires aircraft to remain farther apart from each other in the air than would be necessary with the location technologies enabled by Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites. The multibillion-dollar Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), which uses newer satellite-based technologies, offers a window of opportunity to integrate UAS into American airspace.

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...