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GCN : August 2013
Unmanned aircraft have proven their capabilities in Afghanistan and Pakistan, undertaking re- connaissance and combat mis- sions without putting the lives of pilots at risk. And now they're coming home. "We are not dark- ening the skies yet," said Rich- ard Christiansen, vice-president of NASA contractor Sierra Lobo Inc., "but we are poised." Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are already used in do- mestic airspace. Police depart- ments have tested them for surveillance operations, for ex- ample, and state environmental departments have used them to survey forests and wildlife. And the Department of Home- land Security has a fleet of eight drones tasked to monitor activity at borders. So far, however, these deploy- ments have only been permit- ted under carefully monitored exemptions to Federal Avia- tion Administration rules. But the FAA plans to integrate un- manned aircraft into civilian airspace by 2015, and it is cur- rently in the process of selecting six locations around the county to explore the potential extent of such integration. The major barrier to wider deployment is that current FAA rules require the pilot of a UAV to maintain line-of-sight contact with the aircraft. If that limita- tion is removed, and UAVs are integrated into civilian airspace, analysts expect the market to grow rapidly. An industry trade group, the Association for Un- manned Systems International, projects sales of $90 billion over the next decade. In the meantime, the rush is on to develop "sense-and-avoid" systems that will allow unteth- ered flights. Researchers agree that the basic technologies are already available to deliver effective col- lision warning and avoidance systems. The challenges, they say, are primarily in engineering and systems integration. "We know we can techni- cally do it," said Sanjiv Singh, research professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics In- stitute. "The question is whether we can do it within all of the other constraints." And when it comes to UAVs, especially small UAVs, the primary constraints are size and weight. Whether a sense-and-avoid system uses electro-optical cam- eras, laser radar (LIDAR) devices or transponders, the challenge is to make the devices small and light enough to be deployed on small UAVs. "It's getting close," said Ian Glenn, CEO of ING Ro- botic Aviation, a Canadian man- ufacturer. "We're making them smaller and smaller. Absolutely the technology will get there." ADS-B TAKING OFF According to Glenn, the simplest way to protect against mid-air collisions --- whether the aircraft has a pilot or not --- is to require the use of ADS-B transponders on all aircraft. "These transpon- ders can turn an uncooperative environment into a cooperative environment," he said. ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast) tran- sponders not only broadcast air- craft location in real time, they also deliver information on alti- tude and velocity. What's more, they can deliver data on other aircraft, weather and terrain to the vehicle that is carrying them. In fact, ADS-B transponders will replace radar as the primary technology for tracking air traf- fic, and the FAA will require the majority of aircraft operating in U.S. airspace to be equipped with ADS-B by Jan. 1, 2020. Using ADS-B transponders on many UAVs was infeasible until recently, when Sagetech Corp., an avionics company based in The basic technologies for collision avoidance systems are in place but engineering and integration challenges remain. SENSE AND AVOID -- TECH THAT WILL MAKE DRONES SAFE FOR CIVILIAN SKIES BY PATRICK MARSHALL 18 GCN AUGUST 2013 • GCN.COM