UAS & Robotics

Air Force ups the ante on sense-and-avoid UAV technology

The Air Force has awarded a $23.5 million contract to Defense Research Associates for continued development of a sense-and-avoid system that could be added to aircraft without modifying the craft itself.

The contract, awarded by the Air Force Research Laboratory under the Collision Warning Using Existing Sensors (CUES) program, calls for DRA to further develop its the Electro-Optical Small Sense and Avoid System as part of a multi-spectral sensor suite, according to a Defense Department announcement. The company is to commercialize the technology by incorporating collision warning capability into existing aircraft sensor suites.

DRA has been working with the Air Force on sense-and-avoid technology since 2001, and was last awarded a $5 million contract in 2012. The latest award is based on progress made during earlier work, the Air Force said. Work under the contract is to be completed by October 2020.

The ability to sense and avoid other aircraft is a key element in one of the next steps for unmanned vehicles—being able to fly in airspace also occupied by manned aircraft. Congress has given the Federal Aviation Administration a 2015 target date for beginning to allow unmanned aircraft in domestic airspace, but the Defense Department told Congress earlier this year that reliable sense-and-avoid technology was still two to three years away. FAA has said it doesn’t expect to certify an airborne sense-and-avoid system until 2016 at the earliest.

DRA’s Electro-Optical Sense and Avoid, or EO SAA, system uses passive EO sensors and real-time processing to detect and track other aircraft, identify them as cooperative or non-cooperative, and alert aircraft that could be on a collision course, according to the company. Using field-programmable gate arrays, the system can process 6 million pixels 20 times each second, allowing it to identify approaching aircraft and determine a possible maneuver.

Since 2007, part of the company’s work has focused on miniaturizing EO SAA technology that was developed for large and mid-size UAVs so that the systems could be used in smaller craft such as the Shadow, a catapult-launched UAV with a wingspan of about 14 feet. DRA has used a Shadow to demonstrate in-flight a sense-and-avoid system that weighs 7.5 pounds and draws a peak of 76 Watts.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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