NASA Begins Airborne Drone Crash Avoidance Tests
NASA's Cirrus SR-22 plane will test software meant to help unmanned drones avoid midair collisions.
To help unmanned aircraft fly safely in American skies, NASA researchers and their colleagues are testing ways to keep drones from colliding in midair.
Remotely piloted aircraft such as the Predator drone have redefined warfare over the past decade. Thousands of these unmanned aerial vehicles are now conducting surveillance, reconnaissance and attack missions in war zones.
Increasingly, unmanned aircraft are flying domestically as well in a number of roles, aiding border patrol, law enforcement, search and rescue missions, firefighting, and weather and scientific research. Their uses will soon expand once the Federal Aviation Administration allows personal and commercial licenses for pilots to remotely fly drones in 2015. [Rise of Drones Poses Dangers for US Homeland]
"There are as many applications for unmanned aircraft as there are manned aircraft, if not more, since you don't have to worry about being big enough to carry a person," said researcher Andrew Lacher at the MITRE Corp.'s Center for Advanced Aviation System Development.
"The potential benefit to society is huge," said researcher Mark Askelson of the University of North Dakota.
To ensure that unmanned aircraft fly safely in U.S. skies as their numbers increase, researchers at NASA's Langley Research Center are helping test two computer programs to automatically sense and avoid potential midair collisions — one developed by the MITRE Corp., the other by the University of North Dakota. The automatic sensing and avoiding of other planes is one of the biggest challenges facing the safe incorporation of unmanned aircraft into civil airspace, experts say.
The scientists are using a Cirrus SR-22 outfitted with cockpit and computer equipment that allows them to remotely fly the prop plane. This aircraft will allow researchers to test technology that may one day find use in unmanned aircraft, to help compensate for not having a pilot onboard.
The computer programs the researchers developed will automatically fly the Cirrus. But the plane will also have a human pilot in the cockpit who will take control only if something goes wrong.
The scientists will test the software by seeing how well it senses and avoids a Cessna 172 "intruder plane" flown by University of North Dakota pilots. This intruder will come at the Cirrus from a variety of approaches: head-to-head, from behind, from above, from below.
The computer programs will sense the intruder plane using off-the-shelf Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast systems. With these devices, each craft notes its exact position with the aid of an onboard GPS device and continuously broadcasts this data as well as the aircraft's course, speed, altitude and ID. Whenever the algorithms sense the intruder coming too close, they will change the Cirrus' speed and heading to get out of the way.
"We want to address how things like atmospheric conditions might affect them," said researcher Frank Jones at NASA Langley.
The scientists will share their data with other researchers and with regulators to help develop standards for unmanned aircraft. They began flight demonstrations of the sense-and-avoid technology on Sept. 20 at the Grand Forks International Airport in North Dakota.