Drones May Soon Become Commonplace In Our Domestic Skies
October 30, 2012

Drones And Commercial Aircraft Could On Day Share Domestic Airspace

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

Few things sound as futuristic as unmanned aircraft (drones) taking to the skies to deliver packages and conduct surveillance. These sorts of aircraft have been used by the military in one way or another for several decades. Yet, as technology advances and autonomous vehicles become not only feasible but potentially profitable, many have looked to the FAA for regulations of these aircraft.

Last week, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) took an important step in making these aircraft a more viable part of our future, testing a Predator B drone with the same sort of location systems found on domestic aircraft. With these systems onboard, the Predator B drone was aware of other domestic air traffic and was able to stay clear. With these systems installed and tested, GA-ASI says drones could one day fly amongst domestic traffic in the American skies.

According to the GA-ASI press release, the company aimed to demonstrate how these Predator aircraft could fly safely in the National Air Space, (NAS) knowing where other, manned aircraft are located. Additionally, these systems make the Predator drone´s flight location and pattern visible to air traffic controllers. The system used in the trial is also used by the military to identify enemy aircraft from friendlies, and is used in both civilian and military applications.

“We are working closely with the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration], other governmental agencies, and industry partners to advance the safety of RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft),” explained Frank W. Pace, president of the Aircraft Systems Group at GA-ASI, speaking in a press statement.

“We believe ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast) will play a key role in a future sense-and-avoid system and will support the FAA´s ℠Next Gen´ initiative, so this is a step in the right direction.”

According to the press release, GA-ASI conducted their tests a few months back on August 10th off the Florida coast. The test was well attended as members from the US Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection and the FAA all watched as the Predator drone flew through the skies.

The ADS-B enabled drone was able to recognize other ADS-B aircraft in the sky as well as report these aircraft to a display back at ground control. Additionally, the drone alerted other aircraft and air traffic control of its location and flight patterns, just as it was designed to.

According to GA-ASI, the FAA is overhauling the air traffic control systems in America, converting them from a ground-based system to a satellite-based system. ADS-B is key in this confirmation, acting as a GPS-based surveillance system. The FAA hopes these changes will simplify the state of air traffic control as well as make it safer to fly through the skies. As a part of these changes, the FAA has mandated that all aircraft flying over 10,000 feet or near any major US airports must be ADS-B equipped by 2020. This means an ADS-B equipped remotely piloted vehicle would be not only ahead of the curve but visible to all air traffic control.

While the private sector may be excited about the possibility of drones taking to the skies, others are concerned with the security of these drones. This summer, a University of Texas researcher was able to hack into a drone, take over its flight pattern, and send it hurtling towards the ground, pulling it back up just before it crashed.

This test sent many to urge the Department of Homeland Security FAA to begin placing regulations on these aircraft.

“I´m worried about them crashing into other planes,” said Todd Humphreys, the UT researcher who took over a controlled drone. “I´m worried about them crashing into buildings. We could get collisions in the air and there could be loss of life, so we want to prevent this and get out in front of the problem.”