March 29, 2010      

There will be no autonomous or remotely controlled passenger 747s, but there will soon be unmanned aircraft used for reconnaissance and surveillance certified for use in U.S. airspace. The first steps have been taken, including two successful test flights of an unmanned aircraft controlled by a flight management system (FMS) certified for commercial flight.

On December 3, 2009, GE Aviation and partner AAI Corp., makers of the Shadow family of tactical unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), successfully demonstrated the ability for an unmanned aircraft to be controlled by a four-dimensional trajectory (4DT) FMS certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for operations in the U.S. national airspace system (NAS). The proof-of-concept flight involved an AAI Shadow 200 aircraft fitted with a GE Aviation FMS and occurred in two parts. First, a 45-minute flight demonstrated the aircraft’s mastery of lateral and vertical control. A second flight of three hours duration the following day allowed for more rigorous and detailed assessment of the aircraft’s operational performance. The Army, which has already deployed the AAI Shadow in the field, hosted the first flight at its Redstone Arsenal Airfield near Huntsville, Ala.

Cooperative Research Development Agreement
In August 2009, GE Aviation and the FAA entered into a Cooperative Research Development Agreement to assess ways in which unmanned aircraft systems can be integrated into the U.S. NAS. According to GE and the FAA, the collaborative research would focus on employing an FAA-certified, trajectory-based flight management system from GE in unmanned systems. Also, technology developed during the process can be incorporated into future versions of GE Aviation’s commercial FMSs. The work of integrating GE Aviation’s 4DT FMS in support of the UFIT (UAS FAA & Industry Team) will occur at the FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical Center, 10 miles outside of Atlantic City, N.J. The contract term is two years.

Players in this project include GE Aviation, AAI (a unit of Textron Systems, a Textron Inc. company), the FAA, and the U.S. Army. The Army’s One System GCS (Ground Control Station) does not currently integrate with any commercial FMS. Once this integration is complete, the Army will expand the program to include all unmanned aircraft that are part of the One System.

GE Aviation was the logical choice as partner for the FAA. GE provides versions of its flight management system for a variety of commercial and U.S. military and NATO aircraft, including the Airbus A320/330/340, Boeing 767 Tanker, the U.S. Navy E-6 and P-8A (in development), the U.S. Air Force E-4 and C-130, the U.K.’s C-130 and Nimrod 2000, the Spanish Air Force C-130s, and the Russian IL-96.

UAS Common Development
UAS integration into the national airspace system is only one component of an initial two-phase Unmanned Aircraft Systems Common Development program included in the 2010 U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) budget to develop “common standards, architectures, and technologies that address UAS-specific issues across all military services.” The second part of the program involves the demonstration of common, interoperable ground station architecture and associated interface standards.

Myriad Applications
UAS aircraft can fly longer because they need not carry the weight of a pilot nor be concerned with biological constraints such as G forces. Unmanned aircraft on surveillance missions-for example, watching sea traffic for drug smugglers-can stay aloft for as long as fuel allows, which can be up to 24 hours for traditionally fueled aircraft and weeks for solar-powered craft. The addition of the commercial FMS to unmanned aircraft systems provides them with the ability to respond to the same ground control demands as piloted aircraft and offers greater safety for both the UAS and commercial air traffic.

Within U.S. borders, unmanned aerial systems can only currently operate in restricted airspace, or in commercial space under special and very specific circumstances (and with associated approvals). Once unmanned aircraft are certified to fly in commercial airspace, however, they will be able to play a much larger role for U.S. government homeland security and anti-drug efforts. The same holds for other governmental, research, and commercial entities for search-and-rescue operations, fisheries protection, geophysical surveying, and myriad other applications.

The December 2009 FMS/UAS integration tests are a positive first step toward the eventual operation of unmanned aerial systems in U.S. commercial airspace. This would open up many new markets for producers of unmanned aerial systems, UAV technology suppliers, as well as services companies and systems integrators with domain-specific knowledge and expertise in UAS operations.