Air Force outlines UAS plans as NASA pursues traffic management

By Patrick C. Miller | August 23, 2016

The second day of the 10th Annual UAS Summit & Expo in Grand Forks, North Dakota, provided a clear demonstration of how far the military has come in the deployment and use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and how government-industry partnerships are working to advance UAS integration.

Brig. Gen. John Rauch, U.S. Air Force director of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, Washington, D.C., told attendees that the growth in the Air Force’s use of UAS is exponential and that there’s an insatiable demand for intelligence from the technology.

For example, he said that in 2006, there was an average of 12 Predator missions and one Global Hawk mission per day. Today, the daily average is 60 Predator missions and five Global Hawk missions. There are 8,000 Airmen and more than 1,400 Air National Guard and Reserve personnel dedicated to UAS operations, according to Rauch.

In fiscal year 2015, Northrop Grumman Global Hawks flew 1,500 missions and amassed 32,000 flying hours, numbers that will be eclipsed during the next fiscal year. The Global Hawk has now reached more than 200,000 total flight hours.

Rauch outlined a number of programs from fiscal year 2017 and beyond aimed at upgrading and improving the Global Hawk. They include weather radar, anti-icing capabilities, a ground segment modernization program and an airborne signals intelligence payload upgrade. Other programs are planned to improve sensors, communications and program protection.

Rauch said the Air Force’s General Atomics MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers have 270,000 combat flight hours for the current year and have exceeded 3 million flight hours total. The service is expected to transition to an all-Reaper force by fiscal year 2018, he said.

For fiscal year 2017, planned Reaper improvements include ground control station modernization, sensor upgrades and communications upgrades. Beyond that, Rauch said the Air Force is planning to modernize communications systems, add auto takeoff and land capabilities, extend the aircraft’s range and integrate new bomb and missile weapon systems.

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., spoke of his efforts to obtain a certificate of authorization (COA) from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that would allow beyond-line-of-sight flights in North Dakota for UAS research. He said he expects a decision from the FAA before year’s end and believes that such flights will be conducted in the first quarter of 2017.

“We’ve got all the things in place to do beyond-line-of-sight without a chase plane,” Hoeven said. “Once we have it, it's not just for companies here, but anyone else that wants to come up.”

Making his second trip to North Dakota this year, John Cavolowsky, director of NASA’s airspace operations and safety program, said, “There is an enormous center of gravity here that’s important for us to be apart of.”

He compared the current growth in the UAS industry to the growth and development of the automobile, saying that he believes projections of 7 million small UAS in operation by 2020 are low.

Displaying an old photo of a massive traffic jam on a city street, Cavolowsky explained, “We don’t want to put ourselves in that situation in relation to UAS—small UAS in particular.”

To grow UAS and manage the air traffic, he said the U.S. needs national and regional security, safe airspace integration and scalable operations that will create economic growth. To integrate UAS into the national airspace, Cavolowsky said a strategic view of technologies for secure communications and detect-and-avoid systems are necessary.

He outlined plans for NASA’s UAS traffic management (UTM) program that earlier this conducted testing at North Dakota’s North Plains UAS Test Site in conjunction with the other five FAA-approved test sites.

A successful UTM system will provide operators with the flexibility they need and structure that regulators require, Cavolowsky said.

“Part 107 is huge; beyond visual line of sight operations are essential,” he noted. “We need to be able to enable coordinated manned and unmanned operations.”

Following Cavolowsky, a panel discussion led by Shawn Bullard, president of the Duetto Group LLC in Washington, D.C., explored the ways in which businesses large and small had partnered with NASA to advance the integration of UAS into the national airspace.  

Panelists include Jaclyn Louis, director of government relations and senior counsel for Intel Corp., San Francisco; Craig Marcinkowski, director of strategy and business development for Gryphon Sensors, Syracuse, N.Y.; Chris Theisen, director of research, development, test and evaluation with the Northern Plains UAS Test Site; Joseph Burns, CEO of Sensurion Aerospace, Minneapolis, Minn.; and Terri Zimmerman, CEO of Packet Digital and Botlink, Fargo, N.D.

To mark the 10th anniversary of the UAS Summit & Expo, former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.—one of the events original organizers—spoke on the early days when a UAS mission at the Grand Forks Air Force Base meant keeping the base open. It also gave North Dakota’s leaders a vision of what the new technology could offer.

Noting that the first UAS Summit was attended by 130 people and had almost exclusively a government focus, Dorgan said he was impressed that hundreds from all over the world now attend the conference which is decidedly more business-oriented than it was in the past.

“The rate of change and the depth of change is breathtaking. Let’s be world class; let’s create something here no one else has,” Dorgan implored.

The final day of the UAS Summit & Expo is Wednesday and will include an update on the Northern Plains UAS Test Site; a review of plans and accomplishments by major UAS manufacturers; initiatives to assist the UAS industry in handling big data; and presentations by international UAS business that have opened operations in North Dakota.


For more on the UAS industry, follow us on Twitter @UASMagazine