Image credit: NASA

A test pilot operates a virtual large unmanned aircraft system, or UAS, with simulated air traffic at a NASA research ground control station. The pilot uses the main traffic display for situational awareness.

When detect-and-avoid systems notify the pilot that other traffic is too close, he uses a command and control interface to maneuver the aircraft into a safer trajectory. The pilot is connected with a communication head-set where he interacts with air traffic control similar to present-day operations.

NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, recently hosted the RTCA, formerly the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, Special Committee 228, which is working to develop the minimum operational performance standards for large unmanned aircraft systems.

The RTCA is a public-private partnership that provides the Federal Aviation Administration comprehensive, industry-vetted recommendations about critical aviation modernization issues.

The meeting focused on reviewing the latest simulation and testing activities from the various contributing organizations to develop detect-and-avoid requirements and command and control link guidelines.

NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, is leading a project designed to seamlessly integrate larger classes of unmanned aircraft into commercial airspace.

Ames is supporting the project through a series of nation-wide computer simulations, human-in-the-loop experiments involving UAS pilots and air traffic controllers as well as field tests using NASA’s Ikhana Predator-B unmanned aircraft.

The committee reviewed NASA’s surveillance, alerting and guidance requirements for pilot-in-the-loop detect-and-avoid systems on unmanned aircraft as well as human factors guidelines for ground control station operation, including pilot workload and maneuver negotiation.

“Detect-and-avoid standards are important because the ability for unmanned aircraft to ‘remain well-clear’ of other aircraft is an important layer in the overall set of methods designed for safe operations in the National Airspace System,” said Confesor Santiago, co-project engineer of the detect-and-avoid sub-team of the NASA UAS Integration into the NAS project at Ames.

Meeting these standards would help enable unmanned aircraft systems access to our National Airspace System without isolation from other aircraft.  Drone maritime patrols, wild-fire monitoring, weather research, and flood mapping could safely occur an altitude ceiling of 15,000 ft.  

The RTCA recommendations on final standards are expected in 2016.