With FAA expected to issue a proposed rule this summer that would govern operation of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System (NAS), work is picking up on a number of fronts to open even wider access for UAS.
Pending budget approval, NASA this year plans to embark on a five-year $157 million UAS Integration in the NAS Project designed to reduce technical barriers and validate concepts and technologies enabling “routine” UAS operations in the airspace system. The agency “will generate data for FAA use in rulemaking through development, testing and evaluation of UAS technologies in operationally relevant scenarios,” NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr., stated in testimony in March before the Senate Transportation Committee.
Industry developments continue to push the envelope of unmanned flight. Northrop Grumman has announced a series of recent achievements, including, in February, the first flight of the tailless X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator; and in January, the flight of two unmanned aircraft in close proximity at high altitude to prepare for autonomous aerial refueling in 2012. There have been setbacks, too, as in the April 1 crash of AeroVironment’s hydrogen-powered Global Observer on its ninth test flight.
UAS, or what the mainstream media likes to call “drones,” remain mostly a military phenomena. But civil government and private-sector interest in using them for missions such as border patrol, aerial photography and firefighting has been building for years. In its most recent aviation industry forecast, released in February, FAA reports that 100 U.S. companies, academic institutions and government organizations are developing 300 UAS designs. The agency projects that 10,000 small UAS will be operating in the next five years; in 10 years the fleet is projected to increase to 25,000 units.
“We’re about building a new industry,” said John S. Walker, co-chairman of RTCA Special Committee 203, Unmanned Aircraft Systems. “The technology is here and this is where the best and brightest of government and industry need to come together to find the tipping point where we go off and do really great things.”
Walker was among industry and government experts who spoke during the Avionics Magazine webinar, “UAS Civil Airspace Integration: Progress and Challenges.” They described progress on several fronts toward merging manned and unmanned air traffic.
Nevertheless, UAS flights in the United States currently are limited to either restricted airspace, or in the NAS by obtaining a certificate of authorization or waiver from FAA, a costly and time-consuming process.
FAA in 2008 established an Aviation Rulemaking Committee to recommend how to proceed on regulating small UAS, where the greatest market growth is projected. Those recommendations, describing air vehicles weighing 55 pounds or less and flying no higher than 1,200 feet above ground level, are the basis for the pending Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. Adoption of a final rule is anticipated in 2012 or 2013.
Work continues on the technical barriers to UAS entry. Andrew Lacher, UAS Integration Lead with MITRE Corp.’s Center for Advanced Aviation System Development, said three key challenges are being addressed: the integrity of the command and control communications link between the aircraft and ground; maintaining safe separation of UAS through “sense and avoid” technology; and integrating UAS in the existing air-traffic control system. “We see these three big challenge areas as being very complex, involving significant technical, operational, procedural as well as policy components to their resolution,” Lacher said.
John Appleby, program manager with the Science and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), described a UAS modeling and simulation capability at MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Mass., co-sponsored by DHS, FAA and the Department of Defense. Flight testing using surrogate aircraft is planned in fiscal 2011 or 2012.
RTCA SC-203 plans to issue Minimum Aviation System Performance Standards for overall UAS systems in December 2012, followed by both Sense-and-Avoid subsystem and Control and Communication subsystem MASPS in December 2013, Walker said.