Can UAS prove their worth for civil missions?

The integration of unmanned air systems into non-segregated airspace is an issue for many experts and regulators across the globe.

In April, the maritime version of an Israel Aerospace Industries Heron UAS was used to demonstrate the possibility of integration.

While the technical side appears to be on a positive route, other issues may delay the process.

But first, a reminder.

The Heron test flight was a key element of the DeSIRE project funded by the European Space Agency and the European Defence Agency and carried out by an international consortium led by Indra.

The six-hour flight in civil and military airspace was timed to coincide with civil and military flights operating from the San Javier airbase, which shares its facilities with Murcia airport.

After take-off, the aircraft switched from its line of sight datalink to its satellite data link, capable of operating beyond line of sight, and started its operational mission in segregated airspace, sending to the ground, by means of the satellite datalink, signals from its onboard sensors.

The Heron then climbed to 20,000ft (6,100m), entering airspace class C managed by Spanish air navigation service provider AENA from its Barcelona control centre. The UAS operator, located at the ground control station, followed all instructions issued by AENA air traffic controllers, acting like any other civil or military pilot.

During this phase of the flight, a manned aircraft from the Air Force Academy approached the UAS simulating frontal and collision trajectories. The aircraft’s pilot and the UAS operator followed separation instructions issued by the air traffic controllers and, according to the project’s management, demonstrated the safe operation of remotely piloted aircraft even in an emergency situation.

Throughout the exercise, air traffic control system data based on secondary radars was available to the UAS operator, enabling him to improve the situational awareness of nearby aircraft with more details and precision than a pilot would be able to.

A radar onboard the UAS was also used to detect surrounding traffic, with data transmitted via the satellite link. The aim was to define and test the air traffic control and operation procedures applicable to a UAS, and to evaluate the safety of the satellite link and the reaction capacity of the UAS operator in operational and emergency situations.

All the information collected in these tests will be analysed and compared with the safety requirements being established by EASA and the operational requirements being set by Eurocontrol.

During the flight, payload data collected from sensors on board the aircraft (AIS receiver, radar and video) were transmitted in real time to the ground control station and further processed to enable ships’ detection and identification.

But the successful test flight and others planned for the coming months are detached from an issue manufacturers do not like to discuss – the cost effectiveness of a UAS compared with a general aviation platform.

There are doubts within the industry. It is true that the endurance of some UAS is far longer than any general aviation platform, yet the proof that it is more cost effective still has to be found. This will not be easy because the comparison is not between an “Apple and an apple” – there are so many issues that makes the comparison complicated it will be a long process. It seems that until this debate is proven, the civil market will only have potential without firm contracts.

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