|Uninhabited air vehicles such as, clockwise from bottom left, Global Hawk, Pathfinder Plus, Perseus B and Altair, center, could be selected for research leading to routine access to the national airspace by high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft.
NASA Illustration / by Jaimie Baccus
Dryden supports UAV initiative
By Jay Levine
Remotely operated and autonomous aircraft can provide a communication network, monitor natural disasters, patrol the nation's borders or undertake NASA science missions like hurricane hunting.
But before such uninhabited air vehicles, or UAVs, can embark on those and many other missions, policies and certifications for incorporating them into the national airspace with piloted aircraft must be completed.
Gaining access to the national airspace is one of the last hurdles to the commercialization of UAVs. UAVs currently fly in military or restricted airspace or, in the event they do utilize national airspace, through a complex case-by-case process customized for each flight. Routine access means having a process by which UAVs can be certified and through which a flight plan like those for piloted aircraft may be filed.
A team of NASA, government and industry partners aims to develop recommendations to assist the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in developing guidelines for certifying UAVs in the future. The FAA is responsible for overall safety and efficiency of the national airspace system. Data and analysis developed by the team eventually will make their way to the FAA following review by national airspace system interest groups.
"We intend to recommend the policies, procedures, and functional requirements that will ensure HALE (High-Altitude, Long-Endurance) UAVs operate as safely as other routine users of the national airspace system," said Jeff Bauer, NASA manager for the project. "We will initially be limiting our focus to UAVs that routinely operate above 40,000 feet altitude. As we gain experience, we intend to expand our focus to those that routinely fly above 18,000 feet."
The formal name of the NASA project is High-Altitude, Long-Endurance Remotely Operated Aircraft in the National Airspace (HALE ROA in the NAS). Core participants in the project are NASA, the Department of Defense, the FAA and six aerospace firms interested in development of civil and military uses of uncrewed aircraft. The companies that form the UAV National Industry Team, or UNITE, include The Boeing Company, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, AeroVironment, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and Aurora Flight Sciences.
"The vision is to enable routine, safe and reliable access to the national airspace for HALE UAVs, while preserving the safety of the (existing) system," Bauer said.
Industry interests spearheaded the effort following the successful Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) project, an earlier NASA-industry collaboration. The ERAST project, which helped industry identify potential markets for UAVs, focused on development of airframe, propulsion and control system technologies for high-altitude, long-endurance UAVs that could serve as platforms for the NASA Earth Science Enterprise.
"Industry formed a team because they saw a need," Bauer said. "But they can't do it by themselves. It's in the plan to incorporate HALE UAVs in the national airspace and the FAA has supported us. We have a well-established communication path and we're anxious to come up with the (HALE ROA) plan."
Through a four-step program - the first two steps of which have been funded by NASA - the NASA-industry team aims to incorporate high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft first. When the effort is complete, HALE UAV operators will be able to gain certification of their aircraft and have the ability to file a flight plan with the FAA.
"We need to take UAVs a step forward. We want to fly UAVs to assist with firefighting and remote imaging. The common thread to all of us is that we need to be able to operate in the national airspace," said General Atomics' Robert S. "Scott" Dann, UNITE industry director.
The effort is funded as part of NASA's Vehicle Systems program in the Agency's Aeronautics Enterprise, with a planned budget of about $103 million through fiscal year 2008. Project officials believe that funding level will allow the first two steps to be achieved within about five years. First-year funding of about $8.4 million is being used primarily for validation of requirements for UAVs to fly above altitudes of 40,000 feet.
"NASA is taking a three-part approach to enabling the civil application of HALE technology," said NASA's Rich Wlezien, who heads the Vehicle Systems program. "We're working advanced vehicle capabilities - mission tailoring that includes the integration of advanced sensor suites - and through HALE ROA, integration into the national airspace system. NASA is striving to develop a balanced approach to HALE UAVs."
Project officials anticipate using a range of high-altitude, long-endurance UAVs such as the remotely operated Altair, Perseus B and Pathfinder-Plus, the autonomously operated Global Hawk and piloted aircraft such as the Proteus for flight demonstrations of procedures and capabilities as they are developed.
The Department of Defense is expected to leverage technology developed for military applications in ensuring safe UAV operations in civilian airspace. The Defense Department operates most of the UAVs in use today and sponsors several UAV aircraft and subsystem technology development programs.
Although the HALE ROA project is managed at Dryden, NASA's Ames, Glenn and Langley research centers are contributing expertise to the effort. Ames is assisting in simulation of the national airspace traffic management system and air traffic controller support tools, Glenn in reliable command, communication and control systems and Langley in reliability and certification issues.
The effort began with the signing of a Joint Sponsored Research Agreement by officials of NASA and the six aerospace firms. The agreement is patterned after a similar pact that governed the ERAST project. The agreement allows the group to dictate the project's course and decide which of its members is best suited for the tasks involved.