Trial by UAV

The prospect of unmanned aircraft flying alongside piloted airliners in national airspace has moved a step closer with simulated trials last week.

Unmanned aircraft could be used for disaster relief, communications and scientific study, requiring them to pass through commercial flight corridors.

But UAVs are not allowed to fly through civilian airspace, so a NASA collision-avoidance project is underway to prove to the US Federal Aviation Administration that unmanned vehicles can operate safely alongside piloted airliners.

Unmanned aircraft could also eventually be used to carry freight, said NASA spokesman Michael Braukus. ‘Robotic cargo planes could be a long-term goal. But our project is to prove to the FAA that UAVs can fly safely through civilian airspace. One of their advantages is that they can fly for days above an earthquake site and provide pictures when existing systems have been knocked out.’

By the end of the three-day NASA ‘detect, see and avoid’ trial, 22 near-collision passes by different types of aircraft will have been carried out. The trial is taking place above Edwards airforce base in California, also known as NASA’s Dryden flight research centre. The study involves a Proteus aircraft, made by California-based Scaled Composites, which is normally manned. The Proteus will use commercially available radar and transponder equipment to track and identify incoming aircraft.

During the near-collision passes incoming aircraft, which will include hot-air balloons, F/A-18 hornet fighter jets, gliders and various propeller-driven vehicles, will be tracked from 35 nautical miles to within six nautical miles of the Proteus.

The radar and tracking information will then be passed to a ground control crew operating the Proteus via satellite or line-of-sight telemetry. At no time will the aircraft be operating autonomously, and the Proteus also has a human ‘safety’ pilot on board, in case anything goes wrong.

UAVs could eventually be used as passenger aircraft, many aerospace experts believe. With flights expected to increase considerably over the next 20 years, if the existing accident rate is maintained the world could suffer a major air disaster every week. The industry is concerned about the damage this would do to passenger confidence, and is attempting to reduce the number of accidents by 80 per cent over the next 20 years. As the majority of crashes are caused by pilot error, aerospace experts believe robot aircraft may be the answer.

Note: The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) also held trials last month of unmanned combat vehicles flying alongside piloted aircraft. These were held in a bid to prove to civilian air traffic control authorities that Boeing’s X-45A unmanned combat aerial vehicle can fly safely in controlled airspaces.

A surrogate vehicle, the 1955-built CT-133 Silver Star, took part in place of the UAV to allow a human pilot to be present in case of emergency.

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