Saturday, 13 October 2012

Breaking Down Barriers for Unmanned Flight

The new communications system being designed at NASA Glenn will communicate flight information between ground stations and unmanned aerial vehicles such as the Ikhana. This aircraft is a modified Predator B located at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in California. Image credit: NASA (Click on image for larger view.)

The aviation industry is built on the condition that a pilot is at the controls of any aircraft in the skies. But what do you do when there's no one in the cockpit?

NASA Glenn Research Center is part of a large research project meant to address the challenges of operating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in American air space.

You've probably heard about aerial drones, which have been deployed overseas in military conflicts for years. These unmanned vehicles have done important work in finding targets and keeping our troops safe.

But there are many opportunities to use the aircraft for peaceful missions here in the United States, such as tracking wildfires, weather monitoring, real estate mapping, cargo transportation, law enforcement and crop surveying to name a few. UAVs allow longer duration missions, flights into higher risk areas and lower cost flight into upper areas of the atmosphere.

Today, commercial or civil UAVs are prevented from operating in national air space, but NASA is helping break down the technical barriers to open up new aerial capabilities.

Glenn scientists are addressing one specific and critical area of UAV operation—communications. "Unmanned aircraft still need a human in communication with the aircraft and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)," says James Griner, project engineer. "In order to do that, we must have a communication system in place."

First you have to start with allocating radio frequencies and that takes the agreement of an international body of regulators. These are global frequencies requiring many countries to come together for a vote. The negotiations take years, but in February the World Radiocommunication Conference sanctioned two bands for UAV use.

This illustration shows the communication links between ground stations, airports, satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles. Image credit: NASA

Glenn engineers, along with experts from Rockwell Collins, an avionics radio manufacturer, are designing hardware that allows pilots located at ground stations to send information via a series of radio communication towers to the aircraft and the FAA. The prototype radios and towers will be tested at the same time the aviation community develops standards to see how they align.

Prototype towers will be built at Glenn and in southern Ohio to test integration and communications between the towers. Along with NASA Ames Research Center engineers, who are designing the ground station, the goal is to provide seamless interaction between ground control, towers and FAA air traffic controllers.

Flight tests will begin this year to test the new frequencies which have never been used for air to ground communications before. Security will be a concern and Griner's team will develop secure protocols to make sure hackers can't access the communication system and take over aircraft during missions.

Glenn is installing an autopilot system on its T-34C airplane to create a surrogate UAV aircraft, which means engineers can fly it from the ground during testing, but there is a pilot on board for safety purposes.

"We are basically creating a whole new industry," explains Griner. "Once the technical barriers are figured out, UAVs will be used mainly for long endurance, high altitude missions that are not feasible or practical with piloted aircraft."

Nancy Smith Kilkenny, SGT Inc.
NASA's Glenn Research Center

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