Experimental approval of Altair vehicle comes as NASA axes airspace project

A US effort to integrate unmanned air vehicles into civil airspace has passed a major certification milestone, but faces an imminent setback with the likely loss of a key NASA demonstration programme.

The General Atomics Altair UAV has received the first restricted file-and-fly approval granted to an unmanned aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration awarded the Altair a one-year experimental certification in late-August, the agency says.

However, NASA is now expected to eliminate funding for the Access 5 project, which initially seeks to develop standards for allowing unmanned aircraft unlimited access to the national airspace above 43,000ft (13,100m). Sensing defeat, some industry officials have shifted efforts from changing NASA’s mind to getting the project transferred to another agency, such as the FAA.

Despite the potential setback, Altair’s restricted certification is seen within the unmanned aircraft community as progress. “It’s as big a step that we can expect now,” says Daryl Davidson, executive director of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “It gives the FAA a chance to get comfortable and used to how UAVs are going to integrate into the existing system. It is not unlike putting UAVs into the hands of the military users when they haven’t had them before.”

The certificate allows General Atomics to fly the Altair in civil airspace with relative freedom, although it comes with several special conditions to ensure safety, the FAA says. The agency declines to specify the conditions, but describes them as restrictions on flights in certain weather conditions, operating altitudes and geographic areas. The conditions also require General Atomics to have a pilot present and an observer always in visual contact with the Altair either on the ground or in a chase aircraft.


Source: Flight International