NASA cutbacks roil UAV industry

 - October 24, 2006, 10:16 AM

NASA’s announcement last month that–effective from the start of FY06 on October 1 this year–it will cancel all further support of U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) development has sent a shock wave through the industry. Until now, many NASA facilities specializing in aerodynamics, propulsion, airworthiness and other disciplines have made significant contributions to UAV developments under way in the private sector, led by the agency’s previous $110 million contribution to the work of the Access 5 consortium.

The consortium, which has included NASA, the FAA and six UAV manufacturers, had aimed to achieve “file and fly” approval within less than five years for routine operations above FL450 and anticipated that eventually dropping to FL180 some years later.

NASA’s cancellation intent is included in its FY06 budget request to Congress and is one f a number of revisions to the agency’s priorities as it looks toward future demands on its expertise while staying within its shrinking budget appropriations.

Among other things, the savings would be directed toward research in hypersonic flight and new rotary-wing technology. NASA also plans to reduce its contribution to the FAA’s Joint Planning and Development Office, which is charged with defining the nation’s airspace requirements in 2025.

The UAV industry concern is that ongoing NASA technical and financial support will continue to be vital to maintaining U.S. leadership in unmanned vehicle research and development, which is seen as playing a significant role in the future of civil aviation.

Although the U.S. UAV industry is maintaining a low public profile, while undoubtedly exerting its political muscle on Capitol Hill, European-based UVS International has written to NASA Administrator Michael Griffin that “This is exactly the wrong time for the U.S. and NASA to abdicate such a leadership role in unmanned aviation.”