The Australian Research Centre for Aerospace Automation (ARCAA) has successfully completed the latest round of flight testing as part of its Smart Skies project which is researching, developing and flight testing key technologies to enable the more efficient utilisation of airspace by manned and unmanned aircraft.

Smart Skies is a three-year, A$10 million ($9.7 million) research programme involving ARCAA (a joint venture between the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and the Queensland University of Technology), Boeing Research and Technology and Insitu Pacific. The project is developing a global automated airspace management system, a mobile aircraft surveillance system and collision avoidance systems.

In the latest tests - the seventh round - a number of "carefully controlled collision scenarios" were set up between two flight-test aircraft, one of which was equipped with a vision-based collision avoidance system developed by the partners, says Reece Clothier, Smart Skies project manager at ARCAA. The dynamic sense-and-act (DSA) system successfully demonstrated full autonomous closed-loop control of the aircraft, whereby the DSA system detected, tracked and autonomously manoeuvred the flight-test aircraft out of the conflict scenario, says Clothier. Testing included head-on and overtaking encounter scenarios, with reliable detection ranges of approximately 2.5km (1.5 miles). Different optics, processing and vibration compensation techniques have successfully demonstrated detection ranges exceeding this value, he adds.

Clothier says there are a number of similar research programmes being undertaken by others but these are largely defence-based, with Smart Skies conducting the first successful civilian trials of such see-and-avoid technology.

The DSA uses an onboard camera, graphics processing hardware and sophisticated image-processing algorithms to detect mid-air collisions. In addition to being suitable for unmanned vehicles, the DSA system could provide a cost-effective and self-contained safety system for general aviation aircraft, with ARCAA researcher Dr Luis Mejas noting, for example, that mid-air collisions between light aircraft over Australia have caused the death of eight people in the past five years.

Research, development and flight testing of the DSA system is continuing, with a further four DSA flight tests planned before the end of the year, says Clothier, adding that there are still a number of research questions to be answered.

The Smart Skies project is scheduled to conclude next March, but the partners are "fleshing out the details" of a possible Smart Skies II, he adds.

Technologies being developed could allow unmanned aircraft to perform operations such as search and rescue, bushfire fighting, power line inspection and crop monitoring, says ARCAA. Another project being conducted by ARCAA is the ROAMES - remote observation, automated modelling and economic simulation - programme which is the remote inspection of the powerline network for Ergon Energy in Queensland. The programme uses fully automated aerial technology to monitor vegetation and its impact on the power network.

Source: Flight International