The vision of integrating unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, into airspace alongside traditional manned aircraft is rapidly becoming a reality.
UAS play a pivotal role in accomplishing a wide array of critical tasks, and as our utilization of these systems increases, so does our proficiency in operating and handling them. However, to fully reap those benefits, it is imperative that UAS are granted authorization to fly in a civil airspace. It is precisely for this reason that General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., is advancing the technology required to attain that. It’s the key to the multitude of benefits these UAS bring.
Here's a look at what’s being done.
The goal of common airspace management and seamless coexistence between manned and unmanned aircraft involves three stages: segregation, accommodation, and integration.
All UAS flying started in the “segregation” category. Many operations are still done that way – other aircraft simply are kept out of areas where UAS are flying. In the past, UAS couldn’t detect other aircraft around them, in order to keep out of the way if necessary. With the Detect and Avoid System (DAAS) pioneered by GA-ASI, now they can.
Accommodation involves adding special procedures or local systems for UAS, such as dedicated, ground-based radars, to allow them to fly in certain conditions in non-segregated airspace. For instance, imagine UAS seamlessly integrating into mixed-use airspace, with robust surveillance capabilities that enable them to detect and avoid potential conflicts proactively. That’s accommodation, implementing protocols that revolutionize the way UAS and manned aircraft coexist and operate within shared airspace.
Full Integration allows for UAS to fly safely among all other aircraft. This involves either equipping the UAS with the systems needed to safely follow all right-of-way rules of the air, along with existing airspace management procedures, or rolling out new universal systems and procedures that allow for the accommodation of UAS.
Critical to this integration is the development of a robust DAAS, which provides a technical replacement for the function of a pilot looking out of the cockpit to scan the surrounding area for other aircraft. It allows a remote pilot to follow right-of-way rules of the air by “seeing” where all other nearby aircraft are. The system provides alerting and guidance, allowing the remote pilot to remain clear of other aircraft while also enabling the UAS to automatically avoid collisions, if necessary.
GA-ASI’s DAAS combines legacy transponder and traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS) equipment with a newly developed air-to-air radar to provide a complete model of the airspace. This combination allows the remote pilot to “see” with greater range and precision than what is possible on a manned aircraft today.
It’s also important to remember that GA-ASI’s UAS always have had human pilots – they’re just not onboard the aircraft. The DAAS permits them to do the same things from their ground control stations they would if they were in a cockpit onboard.
GA-ASI has already achieved significant milestones in the pursuit of integrating UAS into civil airspace. GA-ASI’s UAS have been approved for many years to fly Beyond Visual Line of Sight, or BVLOS, in controlled airspace above 18,000 feet. That’s typically reserved for larger, sophisticated aircraft operating under Instrument Flight Rules. This accomplishment was demonstrated in the transatlantic flight of the SkyGuardian UAS from the United States to the UK in 2018, facilitated by a combination of segregated airspace and safety observers in chase planes.
To eliminate these restrictions, GA-ASI has spearheaded the development of DAAS technology and standards in collaboration with industry partners and NASA. Later in 2018, NASA successfully conducted the first flight of a large UAS through mixed-use airspace without the need for chase plane observers, utilizing the DAAS in the MQ-9-based Ikhana UAS. In subsequent projects, the same DAAS was integrated into the SkyGuardian for NASA’s System Integration and Operationalization initiative.
Japan, the UK and beyond
These efforts resulted in the first-ever Federal Aviation Administration approval for end-to-end BVLOS operation of a large UAS in the U.S. National Airspace System. The same approval was leveraged by Japan’s Civil Aviation Bureau in 2020, allowing SkyGuardian to conduct BVLOS flights from the Japanese Navy’s Hachinohe air base. GA-ASI’s UAS also operated successfully in non-segregated UK airspace with approval from British Civil Aviation Authority.
During the summer of 2021, SkyGuardian was deployed in the UK to conduct trial flights and test the aircraft’s integration into national airspace. During these tests, SkyGuardian accumulated over 80 hours of flight time, operating in SeaGuardian configuration with a maritime radar pod. Trial flights took place at RAF Waddington and RAF Lossiemouth, along with two longer flights to the Netherlands and back. The successful integration of SkyGuardian into UK airspace represents the largest airspace coordination project in UK peacetime history.
Later in September 2021, SkyGuardian flew from RAF Waddington to RAF Lossiemouth, in Scotland, traversing controlled airspace and receiving traffic control services from NATS, the national air traffic authority, just like any manned aircraft would. This flight was controlled through more complex airspace than any previous unmanned flight in the UK.
The integration of SkyGuardian into commercial airspace alongside civil aircraft is underpinned by the robustness of its Detect and Avoid System, surpassing the visibility limitations of a traditional cockpit. SkyGuardian itself adheres to the highest aviation safety standards and utilizes reliable components, designed to mitigate potential failures effectively.
SkyGuardian operations with the DAAS have only increased around the world. Aircraft in India, Japan and North America use the system regularly on operational and test flights.
GA-ASI’s comprehensive approach to safety involves meticulous testing and validation processes spanning nearly five years. Through a multitude of flight testing, SkyGuardian has proven its capability to operate safely in civil airspace, instilling confidence in its operational readiness. Equipped with fail-safe mechanisms and the ability to remain well clear of other aircraft, SkyGuardian is primed to operate seamlessly alongside commercial air traffic.