US industry calls for national UAV in controlled airspace initiative

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A group representing the six largest US unmanned air vehicles (UAV) manufacturers warned on the US parliament on Wednesday that the need for a national plan for UAV flights in controlled airspace is now urgent, following the collapse of a NASA-funded project.

The UAV National Industry Team (UNITE) Alliance formed in 2002 by Boeing, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman along with AeroVironment and Aurora Flight Sciences to gain access into the US national airspace system for high altitude long endurance (HALE) UAVs by next year. The grouping is now calling for the launch of a new US UAV airspace integration study after its major initiative, the NASA-led Access 5 project, was cancelled last year due to lack of funds.

UNITE executive director Michael Heinz told the US House of Representatives subcommittee on transportation and infrastructure on 29 March that no single agency currently has responsibility to coordinate the wide variety of issues required to resolve UAV airspace integration. Similar warnings were issued by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) late last year regarding European airspace (Flight International 17 January 2006).

Heinz says “there are urgent needs to operate unmanned air systems routinely in the national airspace system” but current access arrangements are tightly restricted. While efforts are is underway in the USA to develop UAV sense and avoid technology and systems development, safety analysis, flight tests and demonstrations, and certification standards, there is no single roadmap for the effort.

“The work is not integrated through a single initiative. There is no single US government agency that has the charter, authority and expertise in all of these areas to take charge. Industry wants to be a partner in this endeavour, and is looking for a means to work effectively with all of the US government agencies and with academia to achieve shared objectives."

He said there is an immediate need for a “national initiative that aligns the interests of all stakeholders and defines a logical sequence of work to generate the evidence necessary to support policy and rulemaking decisions. The initiative should build on work accomplished to date.”

The initiative should give priority to that the US departments of Defense and Homeland Security can “conduct critical missions and that industry can expeditiously flight test new products” Heinz said.

“Mid term focus should be on gaining safe and routine access to the NAS; and long term focus should be on the integration of unmanned air systems into the Next Generation Air Transportation System.”

The initiative should be federally funded with an “organisational construct within which all relevant government agencies, industry and academia can participate in a collaborative environment, but in which one agency is assigned to lead and integrate the overall effort or each major element of the initiative.”

Recent work by the FAA on opening up US airspace, including the issuing of experimental certification for UAVs, has been a “great step forward”, Heinz said. However “industry ultimately needs more flexible and timely flight test access to the NAS to operate within the short development cycles that are typical of unmanned air systems”.

PETER LA FRANCHI / SANTIAGO DE CHILE