The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is playing a prominent role in shaping the way unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) will be introduced into the National Airspace System. The Pentagon is already represented on federal interagency and government-industry groups that were formed to facilitate UAS integration with other air traffic in unrestricted airspace. With progress toward that goal lagging and the DOD’s need for airspace access building, the department wants to bring to bear its decades of UAS experience to expedite the process.
“We believe in the near term that the airworthiness certification artifacts we have, the process we have, the classification schema that we use, our ‘sense-and-avoid’ work, our pilot licensing and training work and certainly our secure C2 [command and control] work would be helpful,” said Steven Pennington, DOD director of bases, ranges and airspace. The use of ground-based sense-and-avoid radar to prevent airborne collisions, technology that is being advanced by the Army and Air Force, “is certainly a way to expand [airspace] access relatively quickly,” he added. Pennington spoke during a webcast sponsored by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International on April 24.
At present, unmanned aircraft in the U.S. can operate only in restricted airspace or through certificates of authorization (CoA) issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to public agencies. A private entity that seeks to operate a UAS must obtain a special airworthiness certificate in the experimental category. Last year, Congress passed reauthorization legislation that requires the FAA to establish a test program for UAS and sets a deadline for introducing them into the airspace system by September 2015. The Fiscal Year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act also requires the FAA to establish a UAS test program at six ranges.
The DOD is in the process of updating its “MIL-Handbook-516B” airworthiness certification criteria for military aircraft, which will define UAS safety-of-flight requirements applicable to civilian airspace. The department was also instrumental in restructuring a long-running UAS standards development effort through RTCA into a new group focused on sense-and-avoid and C2 aspects of initially larger UAS. Standards developed by the new group, Special Committee 228, will support aircraft such as the General Atomics Gray Eagle and the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk in transiting unrestricted airspace.
The DOD is motivated by the need to train pilots and conduct missions with a surplus of UAS returning from overseas conflicts. “As Iraq drew down, we pretty much moved most of the UASs out of Iraq into Afghanistan,” Pennington said. With the American presence there being reduced by late next year, “we anticipate that many of the currently deployed systems are going to return to the U.S. primarily. …Many of the bases that these assets are returning to do not have direct access to restricted or warning areas. They’re going to need to operate [and] we would hope that we can integrate them.”