[Avionics Today 10-13-2014] During a recent flight demonstration conducted with the University of Iowa College of Engineering Operator Performance Laboratory (OPL), Rockwell Collins demonstrated the ability of its flagship Pro Line Fusion flight deck to be used as a ground control station. The demonstration featured an optionally piloted Beechcraft Bonanza aircraft controlled by a reconfigured Pro Line Fusion box connected to a radio on the ground.
Brian Wolford, senior software engineer for the Advanced Technology Center, is using the Pro Line Fusion based ground control station to direct the aircraft to a new waypoint. Photo: Rockwell Collins.
The goal of the flight, conducted in September, was to test the operational capability of a distributed Flight Management System (FMS) using a certified digital communications link with an airborne surrogate unmanned aircraft with a safety pilot onboard, Alex Postnikov, principle engineering manager at the Rockwell Collins Advanced Technology Center told Avionics Magazine. Essentially, the flight test repurposed some of Rockwell Collins' technologies on manned aircraft and apply that to unmanned aircraft.
Postnikov said the demonstration was part of his team's ongoing work to address the development of FAA certification standards for integrating Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) into commercial airspace in the United States.
"One of the big parts of the certification with the FAA is being able to handle lost link procedures. Today in the military world, when you lose a link, the [unmanned] aircraft essentially starts spiraling up with the hope of getting a line of sight to the radio. When its unable to do that for some time it just flies in a straight line to the point of origin or where its launched from," said Postnikov. "Imagine doing something like this in the NAS. You cannot do that. The aircraft cannot just spiral up and just fly it in a straight line somewhere. So you have to follow the Standard RNP procedures, you have to use the standard navaids that are understood by everybody who flies in the NAS. That's the piece that we believe has very strongly positioned us because the Pro Line Fusion has that capability."
September's flight demonstration was actually the latest in an ongoing project featuring collaboration between Rockwell Collins, NASA and the University of Iowa. The project's goal is to develop a non-proprietary data link waveform planned for release as a public resource, which would help the FAA to develop rules and requirements governing unmanned flight operations in commercial airspace.
In June, all three organizations collaborated to fly a Lockheed S-3 Viking and the same Beechcraft Bonanza as surrogates simultaneously communicating with a single ground transmitter that was securely communicating flight commands to each optionally piloted aircraft. While this test focused on demonstrating the datalink capability, the emphasis of the September flight test was to "ensure that we can exercise our distributed Flight Management System (FMS)," Postnikov said.
The only part of the most recent flight test that was not autonomous was the take off and landing phases. During the flight, the test team artificially broke the data link between the aircraft and the modified Pro Line Fusion ground station, which was connected to the radio that was communicating directly with the aircraft.
"Every time that an unmanned vehicle is launched, it’s not just a flight plan that you're flying. It also has a set of reasonable good flight plans that will follow standard traditional routes that will get us to either an alternative airport or will get the aircraft where we want it to be," said Postnikov. "Two weeks ago we wanted to try that functionality. So we briefed what the aircraft is going to be doing, we went through our checklist procedures, and we said that, in the case of a lost link, the aircraft will perform a specific function if it happens during a certain phase of flight. When we broke the link the system commanded the aircraft’s flight plan from the pre-briefed flight plan. So, both on the airborne side and the ground side, it loaded the proper flight plan and the airplane started following the standard procedure, standard route, to the place where we expected to re-establish communication with it."
While the ongoing project has been conducted in collaboration with the University of Iowa, Rockwell Collins' ultimate goal is to start conducting tests at the University of North Dakota, which was one of six testing sites selected by the FAA to conduct research on integrating unmanned aircraft into the NAS.
Tom Schnell, the director of the OPL, said that, in addition to its teaming arrangement with Rockwell Collins, the University of Iowa has also been working on developing training for UAS operations that would benefit from the use of the certifiable datalink that is being developed.
“A recent OPL project, called the Skill Appropriate Training Environment (SKATE), is a system for unmanned vehicle operator training and activities using unmanned aircraft for applications ranging from precision agriculture to homeland security," said Schnell, in a statement.
The goal is for the FAA to issue a Technical Standard Order (TSO) for UAS by 2017.
While the technological aspect of facilitating secure and efficient data link communications between ground control stations and unmanned aircraft is being researched and developed, Postnikov said cost is going to be one of the biggest issues operators will face when looking to perform complex Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS) UAS operations in one of the most crowded airspaces in the world.
"Its all about how to come up with the certified solution that will not break the bank," said Postnikov. "If you look at all the millions of lines of software code, we modified less than 200 lines of code. We worked just on the edges of our software, not touching any business logic, again specifically to keep certification cost minimal. The first people who are going to accomplish this feat of flying a UAV in the National Airspace System in this manner? They will have this great barrier that is cost. I believe the work that we're doing is really addressing that cost problem."