The Predator drone, known for its stealthy strikes on terrorists, will begin flight tests early next year to prove large unmanned aircraft are safe while operating amid commercial planes.
Researchers will be studying so-called sense-and-avoid technology, designed to alert the drone’s remote pilot to nearby aircraft, according to Chuck Johnson, senior adviser for unmanned and autonomous systems at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
NASA’s goal: Harvest data that will help design systems so big drones can fly above 18,000 feet (5,500 meters), in airspace used by airliners, cargo planes and business jets. Pilotless aircraft could be used to haul freight or hover high in the sky to beam Internet signals across remote terrain, Johnson said.
“You could see down the road aircraft that are very large flying in the national airspace that are either remotely operated or semi-autonomously operated,” Johnson said in an interview at a conference for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International trade group that ended yesterday in Orlando, Florida.
Air travelers don’t need to worry about high-altitude drones alongside any time soon. NASA’s tests are aimed at paving the way for a future generation of pilotless aircraft, not the current array of small, helicopter-type models able to perform mundane chores like lofting a movie camera.
NASA’s MQ-9 Predator B has a 66-foot wingspan that is almost as broad as the 78-foot width for a G450 from General Dynamics Corp.’s Gulfstream. Built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., the Predator started its military life as a surveillance aircraft before being equipped with missiles for ground attack.
In early 2015, high in the California desert skies above NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, live drills will begin with the propeller-driven Predator and two piloted aircraft that intrude near the drone’s flight path.
To push the technology to its limits, one of the tests will involve flying the Predator and another plane at different sites while using live computer simulation to make it appear as if their paths cross. That will allow researchers to create more extreme near-misses even to the point of a virtual collision.
“The idea is to try and figure out whether or not the algorithms that are part of the system are able to tell the pilot when to turn in advance of something that could introduce a safety risk,” Johnson said. “You want to test the boundaries of that.”
The first U.S. Federal Aviation Administration regulations for commercial unmanned aircraft may come this year, covering models that weigh less than 55 pounds (25 kilograms) -- a fraction of the size of the Predator.
Small commercial drones may be limited to flying below 400 feet and within an operator’s sight. A comment period for possible changes may run 18 months, Jim Williams, chief of the FAA’s unmanned aircraft division, said at the conference.
An aerial close call between a small drone and an American Airlines Group Inc. jet in March underscored the risks of having remote-controlled vehicles in the nation’s airways. The pilot reported the encounter while at 2,300 feet, and will be interviewed by the FAA, Williams said.
The bigger drones envisioned by engineers actually will be easier to integrate into the air traffic system, because they will be fewer in number and can fitted with the same equipment as commercial planes, said Michael Francis, who helped pioneer unmanned aircraft during stints with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and now works at United Technologies Corp.
“The current system, with some modifications, is capable of handling them,” said Francis, chief of advanced programs at the United Technologies Research Center, in an interview.
The U.S. military now uses unmanned helicopters to deliver supplies to soldiers in Afghanistan, and in September the Air Force flew an F-16 fighter jet that was converted into a drone.
NASA’s tests of the sense-and-avoid technology will conclude in 2016, and the data will allow the FAA to create standards for manufacturers to build the systems, the space agency’s Johnson said. With the sensing equipment and FAA regulations, the larger drones may be ready to fly in commercial airspace as soon as 2018, Johnson said.
“This is about getting the rules aligned so that any commercial entity can take advantage of them,” Johnson said.
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