Textron Launches Unmanned Aerosonde at Virginia Test Site

 - December 8, 2014, 1:20 PM
Textron Systems started flying the Aerosonde in Blackstone, Va., through an FAA certificate of authorization granted to the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership. (Photo: Textron)

Textron has started flights with its catapult-launched Aerosonde unmanned aircraft system (UAS) near Blackstone, Va., through a certificate of authorization the FAA granted to the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), one of the six national test sites the agency announced in December 2013 to help introduce UAS into civilian airspace.

Separately, MAAP executive director Rose Mooney said the UAS test sites can now process applications for exemptions to aircraft certification regulations as provided by Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. In September, the FAA awarded the first such exemptions to six aerial photo and video production companies that proposed using small multirotor helicopters for filmmaking. A former senior FAA executive, John McGraw, assisted with the applications, which the Motion Picture Association of America sponsored. “We are also now permitted to help companies with 333s which will allow some very specific commercial use and we’ll work with our customers to see where that’s applicable and we’ll help them with that,” Mooney said during a teleconference to announce the Aerosonde authorization.

Textron started operations with the Aerosonde on November 19 during a statewide emergency management workshop at the Virginia Tech Southern Piedmont Agricultural Research and Extension Center near Blackstone. The aircraft, equipped with a transponder to report its position and configured to weigh 75 pounds, flew within Class D airspace managed by Allen Perkinson Airport, a towered airport that hosts military controllers. Mooney said operators are required to file a notice to airmen before unmanned aircraft flights.

The MAAP test site will host flights of the Aerosonde equipped with sensor payloads for precision agriculture research. The FAA authorization also facilitates the test site’s use of the aircraft for “critical emergency missions on behalf of local agencies in cases such as disaster relief, emergency communications, environmental disasters or missing persons,” said David Phillips, Textron Systems vice president of small and medium endurance UAS.

Phillips said Textron is also interested in possibly seeking an exemption for the Aerosonde under Section 333, which would allow it to fly the aircraft for commercial purposes. But for now the company plans to operate it through the FAA certificate of authorization, or COA, process with the MAAP or another test site as the public sponsor. “We’re going to follow the process. I don’t see any near-term commercial opportunity within the U.S. that doesn’t necessitate operation through either a COA or an emergency COA,” he said. “The short answer is yes [Textron is interested], but the short answer also includes challenges relative to size and line of sight. Clearly, we see Aerosonde capabilities exceeding those of the types of aircraft that are getting the initial 333 exemptions. Aerosonde has got a 14-hour endurance; it’s got at least a 50 nm range.”