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March 19, 2002

Release: 02-15

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Test pilots and engineers reached a milestone over New Mexico March 13 that they hope will help bring uninhabited aircraft safely into the national airspace.

A test airplane remotely piloted from the ground detected another approaching airplane, enabling the ground controller to successfully maneuver the remote aircraft away from a collision course.

"We believe this is the first time a remotely piloted airplane has been maneuvered away from a collision course based on onboard sensors detecting a collision potential," said NASA project manager Jeff Bauer.

The New Mexico test flights used the futuristic Proteus aircraft as the remotely piloted vehicle as several other test airplanes, including a high-speed NASA F/A-18 jet, approached from various angles to give sensors on Proteus the opportunity to detect the presence of aircraft on collision courses. Proteus relayed information to the ground controller at the Las Cruces, N.M., airport, who had sufficient data displayed on a computer screen to enable him to pick a safe new course for Proteus.

NASA, New Mexico State University, the U.S. Navy, and commercial partners Scaled Composites and MTSI, Inc., ran the tests as part of a program intended to make uninhabited aerial vehicles — UAVs — safe and compatible in skies shared with airplanes that have pilots onboard. The partners, working under the Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) program, are developing technologies for a series of UAVs that could one day provide low-cost telecommunications relay services, environmental monitoring, and even remote border surveillance in ways that are impractical or impossible for piloted aircraft today.

During the New Mexico tests, all the aircraft carried pilots for an additional safety margin, but Proteus was operated by a remote controller on the ground. In about 18 approach scenarios singly or in converging groups of two, airplanes approached Proteus from a variety of angles and altitudes, providing the ground controller with sometimes-complex problems to solve to keep his aircraft out of harm's way. In all cases, the ground controller was able to safely maneuver Proteus. In reality, the approaches had a built-in safety margin of separation, but the sensors on Proteus were calibrated to treat these as genuine airspace threats to validate the equipment.

The primary sensor used is the Skywatch HP traffic advisory system, a radio-based device that relies on common transponder radio signals from other aircraft to detect collision potential. Other sensors on Proteus used infrared or radar technology to pick out aircraft without transponder signals. Bauer says an optimized detect, see and avoid (DSA) suite for operational UAVs would probably rely on a combination of radio and non-radio sensors.

Another expected benefit of this research is a reduction in the cost of DSA equipment to make it practical to use in more aircraft, whether piloted or remote, Bauer says.

The introduction of UAVs into the national airspace must be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. The UAV testers gathered in New Mexico believe they are a step closer to achieving that approval as a result of these tests.


Note to Editors: More information about NASA's ERAST program is available by calling Alan Brown at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at (661) 276-2665.

Still images of Proteus and of the Las Cruces tests are available in three resolutions in the Gallery section at /centers/dfrc . Video footage is available to media by calling (661) 276-2665.

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