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NEW MEXICO EXPERIMENTS AID AIRSPACE SAFETY

March 11, 2002

Release: 02-14

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An alliance of teams from NASA, the U.S. Navy, New Mexico State University, and industry converges on Las Cruces, N.M., this week to demonstrate how remotely piloted aircraft can operate safely in the National Airspace System (NAS). Critical to gaining access to the skies shared by piloted aircraft is the requirement for remotely flown airplanes to be able to detect and avoid collision courses with all types of aircraft.

Using three detection systems, the teams working as part of NASA's Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) program will fly up to three aircraft on simulated collision courses, while onboard technology automatically detects the threat and proposes a flight path to keep the aircraft out of danger. While all the aircraft in the tests this week will have pilots onboard, the instrumented test airplane will use equipment intended to permit future uninhabited aircraft to avoid other airplanes in flight. This new sensor technology may also benefit commercial airliner safety.

Central to the tests is the unorthodox Proteus aircraft built by Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif. Proteus will carry see-and-avoid electronic devices that will detect incoming NASA and Scaled Composites airplanes. For high-speed closure, an F/A-18 jet from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, Calif., will be used; Dryden's T-34C and Scaled Composites' Beech Duchess business aircraft will make lower-speed approaches to Proteus to help validate its avoidance capabilities over a wide speed range.

Aircraft manufacturers are devising a variety of unpiloted aircraft capable of performing long-duration missions supporting environmental monitoring and telecommunications distribution. But before these uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs) can fly routinely in the national airspace along with traditional airplanes with pilots onboard, technologies must be validated to enable UAVs to mingle safely in the skies.

"The ERAST alliance has the opportunity to significantly increase the utility of remotely piloted aircraft by developing systems that enable UAVs to detect and avoid other aircraft," said NASA ERAST program manager Jeff Bauer. "The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) must certify remotely piloted aircraft before they will be allowed to fly in the National Airspace System," Bauer explained. "Our allied efforts, exemplified by these flights in New Mexico, can help open the door to airspace use by innovative UAVs. We can recommend certification and regulatory procedures to the FAA based on actual flight verification of remotely piloted aircraft safety systems."

The goals of this week's flights over southwestern New Mexico are to demonstrate see-and-avoid equipment capabilities, and to show how a remotely piloted aircraft can be in constant communication with its ground pilot, even at distances over the horizon, by relaying signals via satellites. The Proteus aircraft, capable of being piloted from the ground after making a conventional takeoff with an onboard pilot, will serve as the UAV this week, with the onboard pilot providing an additional level of safety while the see-and-avoid equipment is being tested. Bauer says the integration of UAVs into the National Airspace System can have great positive impact on quality of life. Low-cost UAVs can be used to monitor wildfires, study environmental phenomena, relay cellular phone service, and keep an eye on high-cost and high-risk items like petroleum pipelines and remote borders.

The Las Cruces flight tests mobilize the resources of NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center and ERAST partners including the New Mexico State University Technical Analysis and Applications Center (TAAC), Scaled Composites, the Navy, and Modern Technology Solutions, Inc. (MTSI). FAA observers plan to witness the operations at Las Cruces airport. These flights are one of four test projects the ERAST alliance will undertake in an effort to achieve access to the airspace for UAVs.

For the tests, Proteus has been fitted with a Skywatch HP traffic advisory system, a radio-based device for detecting other aircraft. Additionally, Proteus carries two "non-cooperative" sensors -- devices that don't require signals or transmissions from any other source -- to detect the presence and course of other aircraft. These sensors are an Engineering 2000 infrared sensor and an Amphitech radar, both mounted in the nose of Proteus.

Bauer says success over Las Cruces will be measured by the effectiveness of the "cooperative" Skywatch system to alert Proteus' ground controller of flight path conflicts to enable the ground controller to alter Proteus' flight out of harm's way. Skywatch will help corroborate the "non-cooperative" systems' effectiveness, and could lead to their further development in detect, see and avoid (DSA) applications, he said. Their use this week will help the U.S. Navy evaluate these two types of sensor.

Flight scenarios include having one or more aircraft approach Proteus from a variety of angles and airspeeds, allowing Proteus to discriminate between those aircraft that constitute a collision threat and those that do not. For safety, the various aircraft will maintain an actual vertical or lateral separation during the approaches; the detection equipment can be calibrated to perceive this as a simulated threat at the same place as Proteus will be flying.

--nasa--

Note to Editors: (Limited media access to observe control room activity and the last flight of Proteus in this test will be available Thursday, March 14, at the Las Cruces International Airport. Interviews with test operators may be made available on a non-interference basis.

A press conference with program managers is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Friday at the airport. Before and after the press conference, Proteus will make local demonstration flights for middle school and high school students attending an educational program about the ERAST tests.

To attend any of these events, please call Sherri Clark at New Mexico State University TAAC at (505) 646-5033.

More information about NASA and ERAST is available by calling Alan Brown at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at (661) 276-2665. NASA and TAAC will also have representatives at the Las Cruces airport.

Still images of Proteus are available in three resolutions in the Gallery section at /centers/dfrc Still images of the Las Cruces tests will be posted to that site on March 18; a video file of the Las Cruces tests is scheduled to be aired on NASA television that day.)
 

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