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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Army Takes Step Toward Integrating Drones in U.S. Airspace
Army Takes Step Toward Integrating Drones in U.S. Airspace
By Stew Magnuson

With hundreds of unmanned aerial vehicles slated to return from war zones in the coming years, and Congress forcing the Federal Aviation Administration to open up national airspace, the Army has taken a big step to solve a vexing problem: how to safely fly drones among regular aircraft.
 
The Army successfully validated the Ground Based Sense and Avoid (GBSAA) System in a series of demonstrations conducted at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, this month.
 
The Product Directorate for Unmanned Systems Airspace Integration conducted a formal two-week demonstration with a series of vignettes designed to validate the technology. The Dugway tests simulated conditions operators would  find at military bases as well as virtual flight operations in the national airspace surrounding Salt Lake City and Boston.
 
“The Army wants [this technology] fast. The FAA wants you to slow down,” Viva Austin, product director for the Army’s unmanned systems airspace integration concept program, told reporters in a phone conference. Despite that, the program should field its first system at Fort Hood, Texas, by 2014.
 
Congress this year passed legislation that forces the FAA to integrate large UAVs in U.S. skies by 2015. Meanwhile, the four services will be bringing their unmanned aircraft back from overseas deployments. They will want to train pilots and operators outside the restricted airspace above their bases, but currently can only do so with special permission from the FAA.
 
The FAA wants UAVs to be able to sense and avoid other aircraft and obstacles. There are two tracts to solving this problem. One is onboard processors and sensors that will automatically command the aircraft to change course. The second is the Army’s ground-based system that uses radar to scan the skies for other aircraft, then send commands for them to correct course if needed.
 
Military drones have collided with other aircraft in war zones, and two large UAVs have crashed domestically. A Customs and Border Protection Predator B augured into the Arizona desert in 2006, and more recently a Navy Global Hawk crashed June 11 in Maryland. In 2010, the Navy lost control of a Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, which wandered into restricted airspace in Washington, D.C., before operators could regain command and control.
 
The need to train domestically “along with the groundswell of interest among other government and non-government agencies to employ unmanned aircraft in the [national airspace] creates the need for a hastened development of GBSAA technology,” an Army statement said.
 
The scenarios included live demonstrations where Army drones “flew right at each other” and managed to change course in time to avoid a collision, Austin said. Other exercises had a virtual UAV flying in real airspace over nearby downtown Salt Lake City. An actual drone also flew over Dugway in airspace that mimicked Boston. The program has declared all seven vignettes “total success.”
 
The FAA has two-dimensional radars throughout the United States, but they do not record altitude, and can’t be relied on for sense-and-avoid systems. The ground-based radars used in the demonstration, which were built by Syracuse Research Corp., had the missing third dimension and were derived from counter-mortar sensors first used in overseas operations, Austin said.  
 
“Both the GBSAA test bed and the full system concept demonstration turned out to be more successful than we could have hoped for,” she added. The program will take one year to refine the software and hardware to meet Army specifications. The FAA and the other services have been involved in the development of the technology, so it should be easily transferred to other programs, she said.

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