Remotely operated aircraft (ROA), commonly known as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, have been limited to operating in restricted airspace, primarily in military operational or test areas. The minimal use of UAVs in civil airspace in recent years has been tightly controlled by the FAA, which evaluates each mission on a case-by-case basis to assure traffic conflicts with conventionally piloted aircraft are avoided.
NASA's High-Altitude, Long-Endurance Remotely Operated Aircraft in the National Airspace System (HALE ROA in the NAS) project was established in 2004 to develop policies, procedures, and technical standards to enable remotely or autonomously operated aircraft to fly reliably and routinely in civil airspace with an equivalent level of safety as planes flown by on-board pilots. The project forms the core of the government-industry Access 5 project, which has brought together NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and the UAV National Industry Team (UNITE) to integrate UAV/ROAs into the national civil airspace via a four-step process. The first two steps of that process are currently funded by NASA in the HALE ROA in the NAS project.
The first step is focusing on developing recommendations for the FAA to enable high-altitude UAVs to routinely operate in the NAS above 43,000 feet altitude, and establishing criteria for experimental airworthiness certification by the FAA. Once that has been safely demonstrated, the project will expand its focus to step two by systematically addressing the integration of UAVs into FAA-controlled airspace between 18,000 and 43,000 feet, and to establish a basis for FAA type certification of UAVs. Access to those flight altitudes would be via restricted test range airspace. Project officials believe these first two steps in the process can be achieved by about 2009.
The third step in the Access 5 project would focus on enabling routine operations of UAVs above 18,000 feet via non-restricted airspace and developing special airworthiness certifications for UAVs. The final step would be to develop policies, procedures and regulations that would enable UAVs to fly routinely from virtually any general aviation airport, to land at airports designated for UAV operations, and to establish criteria for the FAA to issue standard airworthiness certificates to production UAVs. These last two steps in Access 5 are not presently part of NASA's HALE ROA in the NAS project, and funding them would be largely dependent upon the success achieved in the first two steps.
A number of flight demonstrations are planned, both in restricted airspace and in the NAS, to evaluate and validate procedures that would govern operations of UAVs in the future. Initially, flight demonstrations will be conducted with Scaled Composites' Proteus acting as a surrogate UAV, flown remotely by a pilot in a ground control station although there will be backup pilots on board the aircraft. Later demonstrations will be flown using General Atomics Aeronautical Systems' Altair and other UAVs as the situation requires.
The HALE ROA in the NAS project is funded primarily by NASA's Aeronautics Mission Directorate, with a planned budget for steps one and two of about $103 million through fiscal year 2009, or about 75 percent of the project's estimated cost over that five-year period. Industry members of the Access 5 project are also contributing funding, with roughly 75 percent of the project's funding from NASA and 25 percent from industry. The same funding percentages will apply to future years of the Access 5 project, which is estimated to cost about $360 million through its completion.
Although managed at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, NASA's Ames, Glenn, and Langley Research Centers are contributing expertise in simulation of the national airspace traffic management system, command, communication and control systems, and reliability and certification issues.
The Defense Department and the FAA are participating in HALE ROA in the NAS under the broader Access 5 umbrella. The Defense Department is expected to leverage much of its UAV technology being developed for military applications to ensure safe UAV operations in civilian airspace. FAA representatives serve as advisors to HALE ROA in the NAS to help ensure overall safety, security and efficiency of the national airspace system.
UNITE industry members who are participating in the project under a Joint Sponsored Research Agreement with NASA include six primary U.S. UAV aircraft manufacturers - AeroVironment, Aurora Flight Sciences, Boeing, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman.