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Speaking Of UAS Milestones...

The UAS industry received a major boost this week when the FAA released its small UAS rule. Another milestone will occur next week when NASA wraps up flight testing of a detect-and-avoid system for large UAS operating above 500 feet.
By Patrick C. Miller | June 23, 2016

The Federal Aviation Administration’s release this week of Part 107—also known as the small UAS rule—was rightly hailed as a milestone for the UAS industry. It should be interesting to see how many businesses that were sitting on the fence awaiting more regulatory certainty are now willing to make the leap into full-scale operations.

Another UAS milestone will occur next week that probably won’t attract nearly as much attention, but the potential implications are enormous for large, long-endurance unmanned aircraft operating in the commercial airspace above 500 feet. At the Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, NASA, the FAA, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., Honeywell Inc. and the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) Special Committee 228 (SC-228) will wrap up a fourth and final round of flight tests that began back in April.

The goal of these tests is to produce a detect-and-avoid (DAA) system for NASA’s Ikhana, a civilian research version of the General Atomics Predator B. As Brandon Suarez, a General Atomics project engineer, told me back in April when the tests began, by the end of this year NASA will theoretically have a DAA system for the Ikhana that can be approved by the FAA. And if it works in the Ikhana, it should also work for General Atomics’ customers flying the Predator B.

Although this aircraft is best known for flying combat missions for the U.S. military, it’s important to note that General Atomics has government customers for the platform nationally and internationally. Not all of these are used for military missions. For example, U.S. Customs and Border Protection flies the Predator B to patrol the U.S. northern and southern borders, as well for maritime missions.

Those who’ve followed development of the small UAS rule know that one important technological hurdle yet to be cleared is a reliable DAA technology that prevents unmanned platforms weighing less than 55 pounds from hitting each other, avoiding manned aircraft and colliding with objects on the ground. It’s one of the primary reasons beyond-visual-line-of-sight flying for small UAS might still be years away.

For the past two months, the Ikhana has been scheduled to fly 270 collision avoidance encounters against a variety of dissimilar aircraft at a wide variety of speeds, altitudes and geometries. It’s one thing to test the DAA technology by flying millions of simulated encounters on a computer and another to see how it works when unmanned and manned aircraft are flying in the same airspace in the real world.

“From my perspective, we’re trying to prove that a system on an unmanned aircraft can actually meet the requirements that we’re putting forward in the technical standards,” Suarez said. “From a manufacturer’s perspective, that’s a really important step because sometimes it’s possible for a committee to go off on a beautiful set of requirements that—practically speaking—can’t be met by anything.

“This final flight test campaign gives us an opportunity to make sure that a representative system is actually capable of meeting all the requirements and performing the way we expect it to in the real world,” he explained.

To be sure, the FAA will want many more flight tests and a great deal more data before it allows an unmanned aircraft the size of the Predator B to operate commercially in the national airspace. However, when the history of UAS development is written, the groundbreaking work in DAA technologies accomplished by the FAA, NASA, General Atomics, Honeywell and RTCA will be considered a key factor in the commercialization of UAS.