Modern airplanes have all kinds of fancy computer systems, but the last-ditch resort for avoiding disastrous collisions or even a bad storm is still a pilot’s eyesight. One of the biggest safety issues with unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones, is developing a system that will avoid unexpected obstacles in the national airspace.
That’s the main challenge ahead for one of the Federal Aviation Administration's new drone test sites in upstate New York and Massachusetts.
"The biggest problem of integrating UAS into the national airspace system is the sense-and-avoid problem," says Larry Brinker, executive director of NUAIR, the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance, one of six groups the FAA selected in December to collect data and conduct safety tests for unmanned flight. "UAS doesn’t have the same kind of field of vision that a human pilot inside the airplane has," he says.
The test sites, located around the country, are still in the early stages of getting off the ground; each will focus on a slight different problem. They are trying to help the FAA fulfill a Congressional mandate to set the rules of the road for drones in U.S. airspace by 2015 (though that deadline is already pretty unrealistic).
NUAIR, for example, is working on research around the sense-and-avoid problem, including developing test procedures and assisting with a plan for managing unmanned vehicles flying in the congested Northeast skies. At Griffiss Airport, the main physical test site located on a former airforce base near Utica, New York, the coalition is planning to set up special sensors and a radar to track drone flight information. It also plans a training center for drone operators there. But the coalition still needs to meet with the FAA to even get a consensus about exactly what data it should be collecting, says Brinker.
The NUAIR coalition, which includes state economic development agencies, aerospace contractors like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, and universities including MIT, Syracuse University, and RIT, hopes to lure as many companies as possible to come use its test facilities—not just the government. Many facilities and states competed to win the FAA selection because of the anticipated economic impacts of the emerging and growing drone industry.
One company, the French UAV manufacturer Flyterra, is already in discussions with the group about starting tests at Griffiss, in hopes of being early to get U.S. certification when the FAA is ready to let drones fly. Another company has approached Brinker about ways to test an idea for delivering life saving medicines or organs via drone, rather than the traffic-clogged streets of New York City. "Now that we’re getting closer and closer to the commercial world, people are coming up with all kinds of ideas," he says.