Military and civil authorities are working out how manned and unmanned aircraft can co-exist in crowded airspace



As the unmanned air vehicle (UAV) industry and civil aviation authorities around the world wrestle with how to certify UAVs for normal operations in national airspace, a separate debate is under way. Military UAV proponents and pilots are at odds over operational and safety issues that will allow both manned and unmanned aircraft to co-exist over a future battlefield.

The pace of the discussions will need to pick up, however, to allow the civil UAV industry to get off the ground. Meanwhile, continuing military research efforts and UAV deployments in support of military operations will necessitate hard decisions from defence planners. And it is a sure bet that the armed services will cross the decision-making finish line before the air force bureaucrats.

The USA, for example, is planning to field a fleet of Northrop Grumman RQ-4A Global Hawk high-altitude endurance (HAE) UAVs and Fire Scout naval vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) UAVs, also a product of Northrop Grumman's Ryan Aeronautical Center. Meanwhile, the US Army AAI Shadow 200 tactical UAV will join the USAF's General Atomics RQ-1A Predator medium-altitude surveillance UAV in conducting future combat missions. Additional military UAV procurements are envisaged, and more missions are possible for those already being built, leading to a growing competition for limited airspace.


The Predator won rave reviews during operations over Kosovo, as did the TRW/Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) Hunter and the AAI/IAI Pioneer. Their performance in last year's Operation Allied Force is expected to give UAVs major roles in any future armed conflict. US defence secretary William Cohen says UAVs were used "to an unprecedented degree" during the 78-day campaign. Cohen says that although "contributing greatly to NATO's success, technical improvements are still needed to attain the full promise of these systems" and "the Department of Defense needs to improve the tactics, techniques, and procedures that guide UAV employment to better integrate their operations into overall campaign plans." Cohen says that "despite some problems, the successful application of UAVs in Kosovo clearly demonstrated their potential to become a highly flexible and effective asset on the future battlefield."

Missile use

Traditionally, UAVs have been used primarily for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) missions, but one day soon they may also launch missiles and drop bombs. The US Air Force is to launch Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire missiles from an RQ-1A to see if it can find, laser- designate and attack high-value ground targets without the help of tactical aircraft.

US defence planners visualise a lethal Global Hawk in the future. The Defense Science Board says such a loitering weapon delivery platform could rapidly attack a wide spectrum of ground or ship targets. "Stand-off weapons allow the HAE UAV to stay out of reach of enemy surface-to-air missiles and guns, and simplify the real-time command and control issues in managing the UAV platform and deconflicting the airspace," the advisory group believes.

The US Army is exploring the concept of teaming combat helicopters with UAVs for combat operations. The Airborne Manned/Unmanned System Technology demonstration has shown that an attack helicopter crew can command a UAV to perform various chores, including target acquisition. In the near future, a UAV/helicopter team will be attempting to hand over targets to a second rotorcraft for engagement with Hellfire missiles.

Meanwhile, the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), the USAir Force and Boeing, have recently rolled out the first X-45 unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) demonstrator. It is designed to take on suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) and a broader range of combat missions. Once proven, Boeing and Northrop Grumman have been selected by DARPA and the US Navy to study a navalised UCAV.

The Pentagon's research arm will soon flight test the Boeing Dragonfly Canard Rotor/Wing (CRW) next-generation, high-speed, VTOL UAV. This could evolve into a manned and/or unmanned future attack aerial vehicle (FAAV), and serve as a replacement for the Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopter gunship.

Another DARPA-developed aircraft, the A160 Hummingbird long-endurance UAV, is also ready to take flight. It is eyed for ISTAR and special operations missions, and for application to future manned helicopters (see box). DARPA is also working on hummingbird-size micro air vehicles with a view to their use in a host of military missions.

The existence of unarmed and lethal UAVs of all shapes and sizes in an already crowded battlespace begs the question whether they can co-exist peacefully. Bob Frampton, UAV specialist at the UK's Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA), believes there are roles for the UAV in combat operations. "The limitations on using UAVs in combat roles are not seen dominantly as technical, but more operational. Concepts of operation need to be established. Advanced simulation environments should be used to evaluate them. Manned and unmanned platforms can be used to complement each other in combat. The challenge is to find safe, robust ways of operating together," he adds.

Perhaps the USAF's Air Combat Command has the most experience in dealing with the airspace sharing issues, both civil and military-controlled. Officials at the Aerospace Command and Control/Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Center's UAV division are working with the RQ-1A and RQ-4A dealing with the issue every day.

Monumental effort

For example, the Global Hawk, which lacks US Federal Aviation Administration certification, must have both a certificate of waiver or authorization (CoA) at least 60 days in advance of a planned flight from the FAA in addition to regional Flight Standards Office concurrence before it can pass through civil-controlled airspace. Also, flights across the USA require multiple approvals. A CoA can be obtained in a few days in an emergency.

It is considered a "monumental effort" to fly the RQ-4A in civil airspace because of the "cumbersome" approval process. The USAF hopes to win a "national CoA" that would "normalise" Global Hawk operations. But, it says that winning an "international CoA" would be difficult if not impossible to achieve. "It would help if the aviation community would recognise that UAVs are coming on a worldwide basis," officials say. FAA certification would be the ultimate solution. "We could plan a mission on Monday and fly on Tuesday," they say.

During Operation Allied Force, RQ-1As were deconflicted from both civil and military aircraft by travelling along pre-set routing. Airspace control orders, plans and altitude blocking were implemented to avoid mid-air collisions. USAF officials say there would have been "a big deconfliction issue" had tactical UAVs and military helicopters been used extensively in the air campaign. The planned installation of the traffic alert and collision avoidance system on the Global Hawk will ease some concerns. Looking ahead, several air traffic management initiatives such as free flight and automatic-dependent surveillance broadcast could ease operational distinctions between UAVs and manned aircraft. But the USAF officials point out that "there are still a lot of questions as to how this will all work".

Long way to go

Despite the efforts of UAV proponents on the FAA/Industry Support Group, who have worked since 1998 to develop procedures for the operation of UAVs in civil airspace, officials believe it will be a long time before federal aviation regulations (FARs) are issued. "There are people who want to operate Boeing 737-sized unmanned freighters. The FAA will eventually have to address the issues. We've got a long way to go," they say. Little progress can be reported regarding this controversial issue, but there is still hope for the regular operation of UAVs over desolate and populated areas. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International says: "The regulatory process remains incomplete, and it is likely that technological development will continue to outpace creation of regulatory criteria and operational procedures. Failure by industry and the FAA to address these issue could very well threaten the US UAV industry's position in these emerging commercial and civil markets."

Only last week Germany announced it was to conduct test using a specially adapted regional jet to test the ability of UAV's to fly in controlled airspace (Flight International 10-16 October).

Ronald Morgan, director of the FAA's Air Traffic Service, recently said the US aviation agency has agreed on the need to develop a process so that remotely-operated aircraft (ROA) may "gain normal and routine access" to US civil airspace. He said the FAA was working on "a notice for civil ROA operators that will identify steps and procedures for operations in the National Airspace System."

Morgan added that "approval of these procedures will continue to be processed on a case-by-case basis, until all lines of business within the FAA are able to address the various issues presented by ROAs." No timeline has been established for regulatory action. FAA officials say that nothing could happen until a UAV manufacturer has sought a type certificate for a ROA. Two years ago, AeroVironment - a company which builds solar-powered, high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft - requested permission to operate its latest-generation Helios UAV in civil airspace, offering telecommunications relay services during four-day missions at 100,000ft (30,500m) altitude. The request remains in limbo.

The feeling within the industry is that civil business expansion is thwarted by the lack of FARs. But Laurence Newcome, director of UAV activities for Adroit Systems, believes that the industry is its own worst enemy. "The FAA is not a contributing cause, much less the primary one, for the failure of UAV markets to materialise. The inevitable conclusion is that some flaw lies within the UAV industry itself," he reasons. Newcome says that there are several problems: UAV systems are unavailable; prices are uncompetitive; and UAVs do not support customers' needs.

He adds that "FAA action to put UAV regulations in place hinges on UAVs demonstrating first that a significant market exists for them, and that has yet to occur. If we, the UAV industry, fly them...then the regulatory infrastructure and the business opportunities will come."

On the other hand, AeroVironment officials believe that "a new industry is on its way since the solar-powered aircraft being proven today will provide better science, communications systems and a more sustainable environment for the future."

Source: Flight International