Coming to an airspace near you: DOD moves to increase UAVs in US

Unmanned aircraft operations are a major part of the military's mission in central Asia. But sooner or later, those forces will return to the United States and have to fly in civilian airspace for training and operational purposes.

By 2015, unmanned aerial systems will be operating from government facilities across the country, said Mary Ottman, the Army’s deputy product director of unmanned systems airspace integration, at a recent conference.

Several Defense Department officials spoke at the conference about how DOD is working with the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies to develop new techniques and technologies to monitor and manage the flight of UAS across the nation. The integration effort is being driven by legislation to better integrate military and civilian unmanned aircraft into the national airspace.


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Because the robot aircraft will have to fly in commercial airspace, DOD is working with FAA to develop rules to govern the flights, Ottman said at the AUVSI Unmanned Systems Program Review 2012 conference in Washington, D.C.

An important part of the effort is ongoing work with the Ground-Based Sense-and-Avoid System (GBSAA), designed to help UAS to navigate commercial airspace. Currently, when unmanned aircraft transit commercial airspace, Ottman said, they require an FAA permit and must be tracked by observers on the ground and by manned chase planes. The GBSAA also uses a triple-redundant radar to track an unmanned aircraft in flight.

“The ultimate goal is that an unmanned aerial system can ‘file and fly’ like a manned system,” said Ottman, adding that DOD must work with the FAA to develop regulatory guidance to better manage UAS transits.

The Army-managed GBSAA system successfully tracked its first UAS flight in April 2011. The program is now working on tracking UAS transit between two points. The system will create a “tunnel” through commercial airspace for the UAS to fly through to its training area, Ottman said.

Sense and avoid

Sense-and-avoid technology is another key part of allowing more UAS flights in civilian airspace, according to Joe Sciabica, executive director of the Air Force Research Lab (ARL), who also spoke at the AUVSI conference. The technology consists of automated air and ground monitoring systems such as GBSAA as well as software and sensors installed on robot aircraft that allow them to detect and maneuver to avoid collisions. While UAS are remotely piloted, Sciabica said that automated collision-avoidance systems are necessary.

These capabilities will provide unmanned aircraft with more situational awareness than manned aircraft. “That is critical in the air,” he said.

Besides flight, the movement of UAV platforms on the ground at military and civilian airports need to be worked out. Sense-and-avoid procedures must be understood and laid out for everyone, Sciabica said.

The Army also is working with the FAA on “safe” states that will ultimately allow UAS to maneuver around any civilian aircraft that wanders into training airspace, Ottman said. Work on lateral UAS transit is not restricted to the Army. The Air Force and Marine Corps are also involved in developing these systems, she added.

Full testing of the GBSAA is scheduled to begin sometime from 2013 to 2015 at the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, Ottman said. The OSD has funded a testbed platform and MIT Lincoln Labs is developing sense and avoid algorithms. Plans are also underway for a GBSAA demonstration for this summer, she said.

The goal of these tests is to certify and field the system. Each service is working on a part of the sense-and-avoid technology, with the Army the lead for the GBSAA program. But Ottman added that there is a need to coordinate and work on standards to receive FAA certification.

The ARL plans to conduct flight tests later this year on a sense-and-avoid technology that it will transition to its Global Hawk program in 2013, Sciabica said. The future goal for the Air Force is to develop an integrated live and virtual training range. This will allow the service to incorporate UAS platforms into exercises and train both UAS and manned aircraft pilots to operate in this new environment, he said.

There is also increased interest in UAS systems from state governments. Some 22 states are interested in setting up UAS test sites, said Steve Pennington, the Air Force’s director of Bases, Ranges and Airspace, and active executive director of the DOD Policy Board on Federal Aviation.

The government is currently developing criteria for UAS test sites. One of the benefits of the sites would be to provide a testing area for both military and civilian use, he said.

About the Author

Henry Kenyon is a contributing writer for Defense Systems.

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