Suggested Searches

4 min read

NASA Langley Drone Flying Site Open for Testing

Until now Autonomy Incubator researchers have only been able to fly drones indoors at NASA Langley. Recently, outdoor flights started on a Langley test range thanks to approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.

It was more than a year in the making, but researchers at NASA’s Langley Research Center have finally completed their first Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved drone flight at the Hampton, Virginia facility.

It took that long, in part, because the area around NASA Langley is complex airspace with Joint Base Langley Eustis and populated areas surrounding the center.

“First we had to satisfy the Air Force that we could fly vehicles safely and not jeopardize their operations at Langley Air Force Base,” said Howie Lewis, head of the Research Service Directorate that oversees all aircraft flights at NASA Langley.  “While the Air Force operates the airspace the FAA still owns it.  So after we got the OK from the Air Force we had to go to the FAA and get a Certificate of Authorization or COA. Once we got that from the FAA we handed that approval back to the Air Force to finalize our processes and procedures.”

That was a lengthy process to go through for a couple of six-minute flights of a couple of hexacopters, belonging to NASA Langley’s Autonomy Incubator.  Those were the only two unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) OK’d by the FAA to fly on the first day the new test range opened. But they were the first of what are expected to be test flights of many more. About 35 small unmanned aircraft are already registered at Langley.

“The hexflyers are research platforms, so we can test our algorithms, our robotic systems and the behavior of these systems as they perform missions we’re interested in achieving,” said Danette Allen, head of the Autonomy Incubator. “Those missions include package delivery, where the package could be a sensor in a forest, or search and rescue. These hexflyers are commercial, off-the-shelf vehicles that have been tailored to do the things we need to do to advance our research.”

Up until now Autonomy Incubator researchers have only been able to fly indoors at NASA Langley. Other engineers have had to leave Hampton to fly their unmanned aircraft systems, going to other Virginia airfields in Smithfield, Virginia Beach and Fort AP Hill. There are still some restrictions at the new test range. Aircraft have to be remotely controlled, weigh less than 25 pounds, fly under 400 feet, go slower than 75 knots and be registered and labeled with an official FAA “N-number.” Those are the registration numbers displayed on aircraft.

A pilot goes through a checklist before flying an unmanned aircraft system at NASA Langley.
Pilot Zak Johns goes through checklist and safety procedures before attempting first flight at NASA Langley’s new unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) test range.
NASA / David C. Bowman

The 100-acre range is being operated by the new UAS Operations Office, led by Tom Jordan.

“It’s a new capability we’re standing up,” said Jordan. “It will give the researchers a lot of opportunities to come out and fly their experiments.”

Researchers must go through the UAS Operations Office to schedule flight time, because the Air Force has to be notified at least two and a half hours in advance, NASA Langley security must be told and a NASA range safety officer has to be on site during the tests.

“Because this airspace is managed by Langley Air Force Base, it is critically important that we schedule usage through the proper channels, deconflict operations, and maintain communications with the tower during all flight operations,” said Jordan. “We must adhere to the procedures that were agreed to by the FAA, Langley Air Force Base and our office.”

The new test site, which is located in a remote section of NASA Langley not far from the Landing and Impact Research Facility, is the first step in establishing CERTAIN — City Environment for Range Testing of Autonomous Integrated Navigation.

“What we’re ultimately looking at is an urban test complex here at Langley where you can fly between buildings, where people are, and the UAS are reliable and safe enough that there are no issues,” said Lewis.

That is part of NASA’s role in the ongoing unmanned aircraft revolution — to provide research findings to reduce technical barriers associated with integrating unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system.

“What we’re doing here at NASA and particularly in the Autonomy Incubator is bringing decades of experience and knowledge in building safe, reliable, robust, highly automated systems, whether those are cockpit based in an airplane or satellite based,” said Allen. “We’re trying to bring that same sort of rigor, that same experience, that same corporate knowledge to these types of vehicles, these small UAVs, and make them as safe and robust as they can possibly be.”