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My UAS Epiphany

Late last year when I began talking to NASA and General Atomics about the possibility of doing a story on the Ikhana—the space agency’s civilian research variant of the Predator B—I envisioned an article covering the history of the platform.
By Patrick C. Miller | April 23, 2015

Late last year when I began talking to NASA and General Atomics about the possibility of doing a story on the Ikhana—the space agency’s civilian research variant of the Predator B—I envisioned an article covering the history of the platform beginning in 2006 when NASA first acquired it and stretching to its present-day uses. From helping fight wildfires in the western U.S. to providing live video of the Orion space capsule’s splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, the story would primarily cover the many and varied scientific research projects for which the Ikhana had been used.

Even as I began writing the story, that approach continued to dominate my thinking. However, as I read through the transcripts of my interviews with Brandon Suarez, General Atomics project engineer, and Heather Maliska, deputy project manager for sense-and-avoid (SAA) technology at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Center, I realized that they had shared with me some incredible insights into the complexities of what must happen before medium and large unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) can safely share the same airspace as civil and commercial manned aircraft.

The project is an industry and government collaboration between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Honeywell Aerospace, NASA and General Atomics. The data gathered from the flight tests for the FAA will be used by the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) Special Committee 228 to develop minimum operational performance standards, which Maliska told me is a key aspect of integrating UAS into the national airspace.

In other words, there’s a great deal riding on the outcome of the research and development of SAA technology going on at Armstrong, located at Edwards Air Force Base in California. That R&D effort is scheduled to continue this summer and will no doubt produce more breakthroughs that move us closer to unleashing the true potential of UAS technology.

One of the most significant accomplishments of the project was flying the Ikhana equipped with SAA technology against a General Atomics Predator B acting as an intruder aircraft. Suarez explained why this was so important.

“One of the big achievements was doing the flight test on an operational unmanned aircraft because it forced us to solve all of the challenges related to integration and getting the system to work in the unmanned architecture,” he noted. “It forced us to solve all of the safety of flight issues related to flying two aircraft on a collision course. None of those problems are really present when you integrate the technology onto a manned aircraft.”

And to further stress the point, Suarez added: “One of the reasons we wanted to get two unmanned aircraft in the flight test was to show that this system could work with itself. That’s really the key. We think it will provide a level of safety even greater than manned aircraft experience today.”

I probably read those words several times before I had an epiphany. I began to comprehend the real significance of what Suarez and Maliska had told me. The R&D being conducted through this collaborative project isn’t only about enabling companies to use UAS for commercial purposes, but it’s also about making the skies and air travel safer for everyone around the world.

And that’s how the focus of a story months in the making and weeks in the writing suddenly changed.