[Avionics Today 06-22-2015] Aurora Flight Sciences' optionally piloted Centaur aircraft completed multiple unmanned flights from the Grifiss International Airport in Rome, N.Y., last week. The flights were the first to feature a large-scale, fixed-wing aircraft flying at one of the six FAA-designated Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) research sites.
Aurora's Centaur flies unmanned at the Grifiss UAS test site. Photo: Aurora Flight Sciences.
During the flights, the Centaur — which is based on a Diamond DA42 Multipurpose Platform aircraft — was controlled from a ground station. Conducted in collaboration with the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance (NUAIR), a collection of public and private organizations based in New York and Massachusetts, the Centaur flew unmanned within airspace also being used by commercial air traffic.
"This was a very good event in the sense that you had commercial traffic coming in and out," Jeff Harlan, program director for the Centaur division at Aurora Flight Sciences told Avionics Magazine. "The flight lasted a little over an hour and we had a 767 aircraft come in and land. A couple Black Hawk helicopters and other small aircraft were also in the airspace, so we were able to see how a large sized unmanned aircraft flies within the same airspace as other manned aircraft."
According to Harlan, switching the Centaur to unmanned flight mode requires minor onboard re-configuration changes, and no modification to the aircraft's Garmin G1000 avionics package. The team was also able to communicate with Air Traffic Controllers (ATCs) through a seamless communications link installed on the aircraft, which allowed them to verbally communicate from the ground as if they were on the aircraft themselves. The flight was similar to an October 2014 flight demonstration
conducted by Rockwell Collins and the Iowa College of Engineering Operator Performance Laboratory (OPL), using a Pro Line Fusion flight deck as a ground control station to fly an optionally piloted Beechcraft Bonanza aircraft.
Prior to the flight, the Centaur team held an in-depth discussion with controllers to walk them through the protocols. An area just north of the testing site's runway was designated as the aircraft's holding pattern for the test flight as well.
"We didn’t want to integrate anything into the aircraft’s avionics, all of our stuff is additive," said Harlan. "When we go into the unmanned mode there’s several cables that we put to bypass what the pilot has control of. The radio has been configured so that when we're talking to air traffic control, it’s a seamless communications link being relayed through the aircraft so it replicates normal pilot-to-controller communications."
The ground control station used to fly the aircraft featured Lockheed Martin's CDL Systems open architecture Vehicle Control Station (VCS) 4586 software, which supports NATO STANAG 4586 and several other military and industry standards.
Aurora Flight Sciences CEO John Langford called the flight an "important milestone" for the company, also noting that the Centaur is starting to draw more demand for both military and commercial interests. Harlan said some UAS technology researchers are also looking to use the Centaur to research sense-and-avoid tech.
"Right now, it’s being used for airspace integration, and they're using the platform to put some sensors on there and evaluate sense-and-avoid technology," said Harlan. "This aircraft is perfect for that because when you’re doing that type of testing you can do it with a guy onboard, and control it like a UAV, but if the sensor doesn’t work or detects something you have the pilot onboard to takeover."
Ironically, the multiple test flights demonstrating the continued growth of technology and capabilities within the UAS industry were conducted several days prior to a congressional hearing where FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker stated that the agency is about a year away from publishing its long awaited commercial UAS rules.