Project Wing package carrying UAS. Photo: Virginia Tech.
As an FAA-designated unmanned aircraft system (UAS) test site, Virginia Tech is actively experimenting with new drone-related technology and concepts. Mark Blanks, director of the test site team, Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), said there are two key technological challenges holding up drone market development: security and sense-and-avoid. Most of the test site’s work is being done in conjunction with UAS-focused companies. However, that could soon shift and expand the effort to solve these problems.
“Historically, a lot of our testing has been on the drone space — startups or companies that are launching new initiatives,” Blanks said during a presentation for the media. The test site, for example, completed an unmanned traffic management test with Google’s Project Wing in June. “But I actually wouldn't be surprised to see some of the big players in the avionics community jump into this. Rockwell Collins is a good example. There certainly are others too.”
Rockwell Collins has been providing avionics to U.S. military drones for years. As the commercial UAS market has developed, the OEM had made sure to involve itself in that, too. Its CNPC-1000 data link helped BNSF Railway complete a round of beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) test flights earlier this year. But Blanks explained that technology for security and sense-avoid needs to develop before the FAA will allow waiver-free BLOS operations.
“Right now, [security] is the biggest issue that we're dealing with in our industry,” Blanks said, “and a year ago, it wasn't even on our radar.”
There needs to be a way, Blanks explained, for people to know who’s drone is flying, what it’s flying for, if it’s approved to be there and where the operator is located. Manned aircraft use their N numbers, which, if it’s flying low to the ground and causing concern, people can see with the naked eye. Most drones would be operating relatively low to the ground, too. But most airframes would be too small to put a foot-high identification number on.
As the FAA has attempted to make progress in its commercial drone-related rulemaking, this topic has acted as a roadblock. Blanks said that at one point, the FAA was ready to allow UAS operations over people. Right now, those operations are prohibited under Part 107. But as the rule made its way up Capitol Hill, Blanks explained, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, law enforcement and others raised the security concern. How are they to know if a drone flying in the airspace is there for good or bad purposes? In response, the FAA stood up an advisory and rulemaking committee dedicated to drone identification, announced during the agency’s Drone Advisory Committee meeting in May.
Blanks said that the industry has come to the test site with identification solutions involving coded LED lights, unmanned traffic management (UTM) systems, ADS-B, other radio navigation systems and transponders, and more. But the test site hasn’t yet tested a solution that meets all needs. While the test with Google’s Project Wing showed technological progress, it is far from being fully developed.
Although and ADS-B Out transmission could be one solution, Blanks said it does not solve the problem of the general public’s need to know if a drone is being flown for malicious intent.
Although some form of ATC might be a viable solution, systems that the FAA already has approved an that are in place are not applicable to a sky full of small UAS. Most drones, Blank said, can’t be detected by the FAA’s current radar technology because of their size. And there aren’t enough air traffic controllers in the U.S. to handle the volume of drones that is expected to populate the airspace. Blanks said the industry needs a system that is mostly automated and can keep drones from hitting each other in flight.
“It’s so early stage; [unmanned traffic management] is not ready yet to solve the remote identification problem,” Blanks said. “I think it's a great potential solution for it, but it's not ready to do it yet. Some technology needs to mature more before we can we can certify it and prove it's reliable. Yes the technology exists. We just need it to become more mature.”
Not to mention that the possible scenario of drones having mid-air collisions with each other and manned aircraft is a problem in itself.
“Detecting and avoiding other aircraft: That's one of the hardest things to do,” Blanks continued. “A manned [aircraft] pilot has their eyeballs but with a drone, you don't have eyeballs on the aircraft. The [possible] technologies for that range from radars to transponders, and other things. None of those have been well proven yet, to always avoid other aircraft. So a lot of work in that space that we need to do. Avoiding other aircraft [is] what enables beyond-line-of-sight operations.”
For remote identification, Blanks said there’s likely more than one solution. The same may be true for sense and avoid. There are no FAA standards, yet, on the performance of these drone technologies. Blanks explained that the next step is for the industry to better understand the FAA’s basic requirements. Not knowing how much proof the FAA needs to certify a technology hinders the test and evaluation process.
“The question right now is, 'what is the bar?' How much proof does the FAA need before they say, 'Yes, that's OK'?” Blanks said. “And even the FAA, I don't think, knows in certain cases.”
Could this be an opportunity for the avionics OEMs, who have spent years developing technologies that make manned aircraft operations safer, to do the same for UAS? Rockwell Collins told Avionics in May that it is leveraging decades of knowledge of human factors, and using it toward developing solutions for drones. The company knows how to get products certificated by proving out safety and risk mitigation because it has gone through those processes many times. It is likely that the UAS industry will have similar processes. Drone technology for sense-and-avoid and security is in its infant stage, leaving an opportunity for technology firms everywhere to try to solve the problem.
“We always say that the technology is being held back by the regulations. But don't get me wrong; there is some technology that is not ready for prime time yet,” Blanks said. “There's technology out there that's not ready to go.”