Unmanned Aircraft Will Be Introduced to Airspace Safely, Slowly

 - September 2, 2012, 1:55 AM
Li Xiaoyu, iFlyUAS general manager, displays the miniature autopilot used in the Chinese Creaton T10 unmanned aircraft system.

Stakeholders in the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) industry are coming to accept that introducing UASs into the national airspace system (NAS) will occur gradually, and that a September 2015 deadline for “safe integration” established by Congress is more a waypoint than a destination.

The tone of this year’s Unmanned Systems North America conference, held August 6 to 9 in Las Vegas, reflected that reality. The glitter of the Mandalay Bay venue notwithstanding, attendees learned of the sobering task at hand: safely introducing unmanned aircraft to the NAS requires standards to build to, a technical solution to the “sense-and-avoid” challenge of collision avoidance, secure command and control links with the ground and dedicated radio frequency spectrum. Then there’s the public’s perception of UAS and privacy concerns stemming from their surveillance capabilities. The FAA has said that privacy is not its bailiwick, meaning that some other authority might have to weigh in on that aspect.

Phased Introduction

Panelists discussing the integration of UAS in the future NextGen air traffic management environment were asked if the Congressional mandate of 2015 expressed in the latest FAA reauthorization legislation is realistic. Heidi Williams, AOPA vice president of air traffic services and modernization, said she foresees a phased introduction beginning when the FAA issues a rule governing small UAS. Full introduction of unmanned aircraft “is probably a significant challenge that I’m not sure is achievable,” she said.

In another session, consultant Gerald Sayer lamented that the FAA’s final regulation on small UAS is now expected in 2014, affecting the U.S. military’s access to unrestricted airspace for training purposes. “That’s really terrible,” Sayer said, adding that unmanned aircraft “are organic to the Army.” For its part, the Army plans to use ground-based sense and avoid (GBSAA) radar as an alternate means of compliance to the FAA’s Part 91.113 requirement that aircraft “see and avoid” other aircraft. The GBSAA radar will be used to monitor MQ-1C Gray Eagles at five bases starting with Fort Hood, Texas, in March 2014.

NASA has embarked on a five-year, $150 million UAS Integration in the NAS Project through Fiscal Year 2015. The project’s aim is to develop a “body of evidence” to validate requirements that can be used by the FAA and standards organizations, said manager Chuck Johnson. The effort involves “integrated, system-level testing in a relevant environment”; however, the “relevant environment doesn’t exist right now,” Johnson advised. There is a lack of validated technologies, such as for sense-and-avoid; no minimum aviation system performance standards (Masps) for UAS; and no safety-critical civilian frequency allocation for command and control datalinks. “When we fly, NASA in essence has to borrow spectrum” from the Department of Defense, he said.

Integration Progress

The size of the task ahead, however, does not diminish the clear progress made toward UAS airspace integration. This year, the FAA formed a division-level UAS Integration Office within its aviation safety organization. “This office will develop a comprehensive plan to integrate unmanned aircraft systems and establish operational and certification requirements for UAS,” FAA acting administrator Michael Huerta pledged in his opening address to the Las Vegas conference. The agency was expected to issue a solicitation to operate six UAS test ranges across the country, another provision of the 2012 FAA reauthorization legislation. Its notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) for small UAS weighing up to 55 pounds is expected by year-end, with the final regulation following in 2014.

Leslie Cary, secretary of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) UAS Study Group, said the ICAO Council earlier this year adopted the first package of standards for remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS). Those standards, which become effective on November 15, represent “the tip of what will eventually become the complete regulatory framework” for operating RPAS internationally, she said. Among provisions, they require that a remotely piloted aircraft “be operated in such a manner as to minimize hazards to persons, property or other aircraft” and that RPAS as a whole be approved or certified.

ICAO expects to produce standards and recommended practices for airworthiness, operations, licensing, communications and detect-and-avoid aspects of remotely piloted aircraft, as well as provisions for basic air-traffic management, in the 2016 to 2018 time frame, Cary said. These will provide “enough material for states to accommodate international operations to some extent.”

The underlying technical standards are being worked by standards organizations. In the U.S., RTCA Special Committee 203 expects to complete Masps for UAS by year-end, and for sense-and-avoid and command and control systems by December next year. Ted Wierzbanowski, chairman of ASTM International Committee F38, said his group is progressing on standards for UAS design, construction and testing, operations and maintenance and pilot and crew training.

Wierzbanowski directs the airspace integration efforts of small UAS manufacturer Aerovironment and previously served as co-chairman of the small UAS aviation rulemaking committee that delivered recommendations to the FAA in 2009. Although emphasizing that he had not seen the FAA’s long-awaited NPRM, he observed that the proposed rule will likely limit small UAS to flying 400 feet agl or below, within visual line of sight of an observer on the ground, and during day VMC. The FAA will “probably insert weight regimes, there will be certain distances you can fly out to be sure that you can, in fact, see an intruding aircraft” in the same airspace as the UAS, he said. “If you want to fly these things beyond visual line of sight, then you’re going to have to come up with a sense-and-avoid system. Probably the most near-term [system] is ground-based sense-and-avoid.”

The 2012 edition of Unmanned Systems North America, which is organized by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International of Arlington, Va., attracted 550 exhibitors and a reported 7,400 attendees. Among the exhibitors was ITT Exelis, which is advancing both GBSAA and airborne sense-and-avoid systems (ABSAA) to support UAS airspace integration. At the company’s stand was the ABSAA radar it is developing for the U.S. Navy’s MQ-4C Broad Area Maritime Surveillance aircraft, a Global Hawk derivative. The 50-pound, self-contained radar is also being promoted for other large UASs and even manned civilian aircraft, branded as the SkySense 2020H system.

“It’s a large market; we know it’s coming,” David Jones, ITT Exelis senior business development manager for radar, reconnaissance and acoustic systems, told AIN. “The key is, there’s no set approved standard yet [for sense-and-avoid technology]. Once the FAA approves the system, the competition is going to be on.”