DENVER — The Federal Aviation Administration has granted the Army permission to fly unmanned aircraft in national airspace at night using ground-based radar and GPS systems to avoid civilian and commercial traffic.
“This is a landmark event,” said Col. Gregory Gonzalez, project manager for Army unmanned aircraft systems.
The armed services, now heavily reliant on unmanned aircraft, have enjoyed the use of open airspace overseas to fly their drones. But when the wars end, they will lose those privileges.
“When we bring hundreds of aircraft back, we’ll have to fly in national airspace in order to train all the units to keep them proficient to protect our country in any other contingency that comes along,” Gonzalez told reporters at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference.
The FAA has long been wary of opening up national airspace to remotely piloted aircraft — a technology it perceives as a potential threat to civilian carriers because the operators who control the flights through video screens have limited fields of view. If operators lose connectivity with the aircraft, no one is on board to steer the plane to safety.
The Navy on Aug. 2 lost communications with a robotic Fire Scout helicopter that had taken off from the Patuxent River testing ground in Maryland. It flew toward Washington, D.C., and broached restricted airspace before operators regained control. The North American Aerospace Defense Command was about to scramble F-16 fighters to intercept the chopper, which came within 40 miles of the nation’s capital. NORAD’s commander, Navy Adm. Sandy Winnefeld, who also heads U.S. Northern Command, said officials were considering possible options for stopping the runaway chopper, including shooting it down, when they received word that it was back under control.
In anticipation of flying UAS training missions in national airspace, the Army has been developing a ground-based sense-and-avoid capability to prevent mishaps. The technology relies on radar and software that has been integrated into UAS ground control stations rather than placed on board the aircraft.
The “zero-conflict airspace” system is being implemented in several phases. The first phase is to detect a manned aircraft coming into the UAS’ airspace. The operator would receive an alert and subsequently land the aircraft. That phase has received approval from the FAA — with restrictions — to allow the Army to fly UASs at a test flight area near El Mirage, Calif.
“That’s our first step toward a proof of concept to demonstrate to the FAA that there are ways to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system,” Col. John M. Lynch, director of the U.S. Army unmanned aircraft systems center of excellence, told National Defense in a phone interview.
To test the system, the Army plans to fly its MQ-1C Gray Eagle at El Mirage in the near future, Gonzalez said. The Army is still negotiating with the FAA over details needed to receive a certificate of authorization to fly in the airspace.
One of the restrictions requires an FAA representative to observe the flight operation from the ground. That may prove to be difficult because the Army intends to fly from dusk to dawn, seven nights per week, officials said.
Once the flights commence and the first phase of the “zero-conflict airspace” system is proven, then next phase would involve alerting the UAS operator to traffic and giving him the opportunity to move the aircraft away from the manned airplane rather than landing.
The Army wants to expand the system beyond El Mirage to other locations, including Fort Huachuca, Ariz., and Dugway Proving Ground, Utah. The radar would allow the service to set up “tunnels” between civilian and military airspaces so UASs could fly safely over restricted zones to do the training that they need to do.
“The first step is to do it right at El Mirage and then move it along,” said Gonzalez.