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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles 

Army Receives FAA Approval to Fly Unmanned Aircraft in National Airspace 

10  2,010 

By Grace V. Jean 

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. 

Reader Comments

Re: Army Receives FAA Approval to Fly Unmanned Aircraft in National Airspace

It's George Orwell / Blue thunder coming true. Big brother now takes to the skies of the USA. I hate to sound like the black chopper crowd; but I'm not so sure the Army will use these approvals for just practice flights.

tiger on 10/02/2010 at 05:06

Re: Army Receives FAA Approval to Fly Unmanned Aircraft in National Airspace

This really isn't in open airspace. It has to stay within the range of the Army ground radar site and whatever GPS positioning system it uses. The UAV is not going out cross country but more than likely is a "local area" night time (no one else flying) training or testing sortie. Everyone calm down, it isn't going to be flying along airways headed to another location.

Jack Slagle on 09/24/2010 at 09:19

Re: Army Receives FAA Approval to Fly Unmanned Aircraft in National Airspace

About time. The FAA, AOPA, and EAA have dragged their a-- on this technology long enough. Has anyone read "Wired for War" by P.W.Singer on the new world of unmanned systems in FAA and the rest of the alphabet soap of graying aviation organizations. These aging organizations what to fly in airspace of the old days sorry but its time the deal with the new age of aviation its unmanned gray beards of general aviation time to get out of the way. I have been a general aviation pilot since 1974 and have over 3200 hours of PIC time but I can see what is coming and glad to see it coming. So you old timers get out of the way so unmanned aviation can get it on.

Alan on 09/22/2010 at 13:01

Re: Army Receives FAA Approval to Fly Unmanned Aircraft in National Airspace

A baby step in the right direction for the UAS integration with the NAS!

Ajay Sehgal on 09/22/2010 at 08:48

Re: Army Receives FAA Approval to Fly Unmanned Aircraft in National Airspace

The purpose in allowing UAS into the NAS is to provide a greater level of training. The FAA is allowing it because many cargo carriers want to go unmanned, not the big brother effect. If the government wans to do surveillance, it can without UAS, and it already does. The Gray Eagle flies with a pre-programmed "contingency mission" loaded into its memory. This program directs the aircraft to fly a certain route/altitude or hold at a predetermined point. This mission can be custon made and changed in flight.
From my personal experience, UAS are no more dangerous than the 3-5 GA pilots that overfly the active skydive center in Elsinore California on a daily basis.

TR on 09/20/2010 at 16:14

Re: Army Receives FAA Approval to Fly Unmanned Aircraft in National Airspace

The purpose in allowing UAS into the NAS is to provide a greater level of training. The FAA is allowing it because many cargo carriers want to go unmanned, not the big brother effect. If the government wans to do surveillance, it can without UAS, and it already does. The Gray Eagle flies with a pre-programmed "contingency mission" loaded into its memory. This program directs the aircraft to fly a certain route/altitude or hold at a predetermined point. This mission can be custon made and changed in flight.
From my personal experience, UAS are no more dangerous than the 3-5 GA pilots that overfly the active skydive center in Elsinore California on a daily basis.

TR on 09/20/2010 at 16:13

Re: Army Receives FAA Approval to Fly Unmanned Aircraft in National Airspace

So what happens if a UAS busts out of the MOA and plows through Class B as the morning heavies accumulate on the inbound? Is there a plan? I can't see much tolerance for shutting down TOs and diverting arrivals at a major hub. Not even once, and the Navy seems to have nearly done it already.
Maybe this training should be conducted in remote area such that the fuel range would ensure that they come down before any conflict were possible. Like
well out to sea, or over arctic tundra. The remote of the operation is afterall the essential characteristic of the device.

Pete Taylor on 09/20/2010 at 13:14

Re: Army Receives FAA Approval to Fly Unmanned Aircraft in National Airspace

Restricted Airspace is already a limited resource that can not satisfy the current requirement, let alone the future requirement needed when UAS return from Iraq and Afghanistan. The US military UAS do use simulation, but certain things just can't be done with simulation. This is the future. If GA pilots want to shape it, they need to get involved with the solutions on how manned and unmanned systems can share airspace safely - not complain in generalities out of fear not backed by research or facts.

TK on 09/20/2010 at 11:07

Re: Army Receives FAA Approval to Fly Unmanned Aircraft in National Airspace

This breaches the fundamental safety doctrine of our national airspace system: see and avoid. The Army can train using simulators better, cheaper and safer - just like every other segment of the aviation industry does. What the Army has asked for and the FAA granted is a waste of tax dollars and endangers life and property. If there is ever a need to fly UAVs for training purposes they should be flown only in current restricted areas.

Gary Grover on 09/20/2010 at 09:28

Re: Army Receives FAA Approval to Fly Unmanned Aircraft in National Airspace

In the not to distant future, general aviation will be restricted to some small, low altitude box in N Montana. The rest of the 'unrestricted' airspace will belong to the feds, and we will only be allowed in by permission.

Imagine if the feds decided to deploy an unmanned 3000Lb car on the streets of the US. That would go down well. Just because pilots are underrepresented in the US, the feds can get away with it. Soon it will literally be murder when one of them whacks into a family in a Piper.

Doc on 09/19/2010 at 13:31

Re: Army Receives FAA Approval to Fly Unmanned Aircraft in National Airspace

Will the Army (USAF, USN, etc) rely on transponder returns from other aircraft to identify their proximity? What about my J3-Cub (no electrics, no radio, no TXPR, frequently operated on 300NM+ cross-country flights)? So long as Army flies only at night, we are mutually exclusive - but when they start flying in daylight, how will they "see and avoid" me?

Cubflyer on 09/19/2010 at 12:02

Re: Army Receives FAA Approval to Fly Unmanned Aircraft in National Airspace

Simply not acceptable.
As a private pilot with the safety of my family at risk, the FAA is letting us down 'big time'.
We feel a sick feeling in the pit of our stomach.
The NAVY has not even explained what went wrong in August. C'mon FAA please!

steve on 09/19/2010 at 07:48

Re: Army Receives FAA Approval to Fly Unmanned Aircraft in National Airspace

This is scary...indeed the camel's nose is in the tent. How much longer before most airspace is an "MOA" and what is not an MOA is restricted or prohibited...

drd on 09/18/2010 at 14:54

Re: Army Receives FAA Approval to Fly Unmanned Aircraft in National Airspace

This still does not address the issue of loss of ground to air signal communication to the UAV being flown from the ground. I see no contingency plan to cover this scenario which is very real as demonstrated in the NAVY incident. Where is the fail-safe?

VR on 09/18/2010 at 12:50

Re: Army Receives FAA Approval to Fly Unmanned Aircraft in National Airspace

Why not restrict the initial training to the many "Restricted Airspace" areas that already exist for military training, and then confine them to those areas unless a national emergency exists!! Otherwise we have another "Big Brother" method of watching us.

Ed on 09/18/2010 at 11:54

Re: Army Receives FAA Approval to Fly Unmanned Aircraft in National Airspace

Yes, The UAS aircraft have lights, strobes, and Transponders. The term unmanned is misleading. There is an Operator (they don't call them pilots)at the controls at all times. The operator is in the Ground Control Station along with the Sensor operator. The Army does not train the operators as rated pilots, like anything else they are trained to operate the Air Vehicle to a satisfactory level.

Don W on 09/18/2010 at 03:06

Re: Army Receives FAA Approval to Fly Unmanned Aircraft in National Airspace

Will the UAVs be integrated into the TCAS and ADS/B systems? They may be able to detect GA aircraft, but they must also be detectable by GA aircraft.

Rocky Kyle on 09/17/2010 at 22:39

Re: Army Receives FAA Approval to Fly Unmanned Aircraft in National Airspace

The camels nose is in the tent . .

John on 09/17/2010 at 20:34

Re: Army Receives FAA Approval to Fly Unmanned Aircraft in National Airspace

Wow this is "The Terminator" scenario in real life. They "HAVE" to fly these to remain proficient. Has the military ever heard of flight simulators? This is all just one more step closer to big brother.

john larson on 09/17/2010 at 19:57

Re: Army Receives FAA Approval to Fly Unmanned Aircraft in National Airspace

Nowhere in this article is there mention of Performance-based airspace, NextGen, or the JPDO. UAS operations must be a component part of NAS integration and NextGen implementation- "Where's the Beef?"

T. Demosthenes on 09/17/2010 at 16:36

Re: Army Receives FAA Approval to Fly Unmanned Aircraft in National Airspace

Are these unmanned aircraft going to have navigation light and strobes to make them visable?

Robert Cassidy on 09/17/2010 at 16:20

Re: Army Receives FAA Approval to Fly Unmanned Aircraft in National Airspace

Interesting. CAMI needs to hurry up.

GW on 09/17/2010 at 13:55

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