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AUVSI Special: Industry raises the UAV ante

Proponents of a quicker integration of manned and unmanned air vehicles into US civil airspace have shifted from passive to proactive in their efforts to accelerate government timelines a decade away and counter powerful new thrusts by the European unmanned community.

The result is a co-ordinated push on the regulatory status quo that includes potential legislative action and individual projects aimed at demonstrating how UAVs and manned aircraft can fly together in harmony.

"US manufacturers believe that we need to accelerate time-wise and get interim access to regain and keep a competitive edge with the world," says Rose Karolenko, president of the non-profit UAV national industry team (Unite) and an employee of unmanned aircraft systems builder AAI. "We need this to be able to fly new designs, both for developmental programmes and to open the commercial market. The world is embracing UAS as a commercial option, but it's not viable in the USA."

Exemplifying the thrust is a new co-operative research and development agreement that AAI last month signed with the US Federal Aviation Administration. Under the arrangement, AAI will provide its expertise and other products to the agency as part of a programme to simulate interactions between unmanned and manned aircraft in the national airspace system, starting in November.

The FAA simulation, part of a new testbed the agency is setting up at its technical centre in Atlantic City, New Jersey, will include AAI's Shadow platform equipped with a 4D-trajectory advanced flight management system built by GE Aviation as well as automatic dependent surveillance - broadcast functionality for surveillance. The agency plans to mandate ADS-B, which relays GPS position, rate and other aircraft data to nearby aircraft and the ground, for most aircraft flying in civil airspace by 2020, if not before. The technology is intended to largely replace secondary surveillance radar use.

By simulating UAVs as having the most modern navigation and surveillance equipment, manufacturers hope to highlight the similarities rather than the differences between manned and unmanned aviation, accelerating the transition to flight demonstrations.

AAI is one of seven companies that make up the UAV national industry team (Unite), a non-profit industry group that recently vowed to "no longer work behind the scenes". Unite's other members are AeroVironment, Boeing, General Atomics, Northrop Grumman and most recently, DRA and Rockwell Collins.

Rockwell Collins, which purchased Virginia-based Athena Technologies last year, is itself trying to galvanise support for manned and unmanned convergence through a new "eBook" website meant to be a clearing house of information on global efforts in the sector. In addition the Aerospace Industries Association UAS subcommittee is focusing resources to expedite integration, largely through lobbying for more funding and resources, working technical issues like spectrum access and standards and supporting the NASA-led multi-agency Joint Interagency UAS Working Group that is investigating commercial UAS access.

Prominently featured in Rockwell Collins' eBook is action on the European front, exemplified by two key near-term demonstration programmes aimed at flying UAVs in non-segregated civil airspace and developing regulatory standards.

One is the $70 million mid-air collision avoidance system project, the other is the UK's Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation and Assessment (Astraea), a sense and avoid demonstration planned for 2012 or later (see box). Sense and avoid and command, control and communications are considered the two largest hurdles that must be overcome to integrate manned and unmanned aircraft.

In part due to sense and avoid concerns, UAS operators in the USA continue to face hurdles to airspace access. Today operators must either have an FAA-approved certificate of authorisation (COA), a special airworthiness certificate for experimental aircraft, or must fly in restricted, warning or prohibited airspace under the sponsorship of the government. UAS makers say these requirements prohibit commercial opportunities and stretch schedules and keep costs high for development, testing and training.

Operators of large UAVs flying with COAs are noting some progress, however. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems president Tom Cassidy says the FAA is becoming increasingly flexible in granting COAs as it gains experience with types of long-range fire and hurricane missions that are being flown by NASA, the Department of Homeland Security and others with Predator-family aircraft built by General Atomics. "The more we do, the more it becomes acceptable to the FAA," says Cassidy.

From a more universal standpoint, the FAA is taking a walk-before-you-run and do-no-harm approach to UAS integration, focusing first on small systems. The agency is planning to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking for small unmanned aircraft systems weighing less than 25kg (55lb), in part based on input from a government-industry aviation rulemaking committee brought together in 2008 to study the issue. Its recommendations would provide for limited initial small UAS operations for aircraft certificated under consensus airworthiness standards, weighing less than 25kg, flying lower than 400ft (120m) above the ground. An eventual rulemaking would likely result in special federal aviation regulation covering the operations.

The idea, according to Ted Wierzbanowski, industry co-chair for the small UAS aviation rulemaking committee, is to "take a small bite of the elephant" so that limited operations could begin in the near term. "Once safety data on these limited operations could be compiled more expanded operations could be allowed in the future," says Wierzbanowski, noting that costs and schedules associated with small UAS development, testing and training for both public and civil applications would be substantially decreased under the aviation rulemaking committee's recommendations.

Progress has been more measured for developing regulations pertaining to larger unmanned systems, a task which is highly dependent on RTCA special committee 203, a committee formed by the FAA in 2004 and tasked with developing performance standards for sense and avoid and command, control and communications.

Based on stakeholder pressures, the committee has been moving its schedules to the left. In October, SC 203 changed its estimated completion date for the materials from 2019 to 2013, largely by easing a previous constraint that the sense and avoid systems operate in all airspace, including busier terminal areas (class B, C and D).

Under the new plan, specifications will be written for UAVs that will nominally fly in uncontrolled (class G) or other less-crowded airspace (class E and A), operating out of private airfields. Contingencies for cases where the UAVs enter controlled airspace will also be included.

Industry-spurred action in the US Congress could accelerate schedules even more. The Senate version of an FAA funding bill set to be debated later this year includes a comprehensive shopping list of items that provide a sense of the schedules and testing that proponents would like to see.

Included in pilot projects are two sites to demonstrate integrated operations by 2012, research into human factors, dynamic simulations of "all classes" of UAS in the national airspace system, an assessment of sense and avoid technologies and other UAS-related challenges by the National Academy of Sciences, and consolidating all needed rulemakings for integrating all manner of unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system, including vehicle design requirements and operational requirements, by 30 April 2010.