NASA Aeronautics: Integrating Unmanned Aircraft Systems into the National Airspace System

Artistic Concept of UAS in NAS, Photo Credit: NASA

NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California, is often on the forefront of aeronautics research with noteworthy projects such as the F-18 High Angle-of-Attack (Alpha) Research Vehicle (HARV) and the X-48B Blended Wing Body research aircraft. It has conducted research with both manned and unmanned systems, including the Global Hawk, an unmanned aircraft being used in high-altitude, long-duration Earth science missions. NASA Dryden has now taken the next step as project lead to integrate unmanned aerial vehicles into the national airspace.

 The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the National Airspace System project (termed UAS in the NAS) is aimed to “contribute capabilities designed to reduce technical barriers related to safety and operational challenges associated with enabling routine UAS access to the NAS”, according to NASA. In addition to Dryden, NASA’s three other aeronautics research centers are involved in the project – Ames Research Center, Langley Research Center, and Glenn Research Center. Due to the steadily increasing use of unmanned aircraft in civilian applications, such as fire assessment and police unit assistance, there is a growing need for safe integration into the national airspace.

 The UAS in the NAS project aims for all unmanned aircraft system classes to have “performance-based routine access to all segments of the national airspace” provided that all safety and technical concerns have been addressed.   According to NASA, Integrated system-level tests will be performed and data will be provided to stakeholders and such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) Special Committee 203 that highlight how operational and safety challenges may be addressed.

The project has five focus areas: separation assurance, communications, human systems integration, certification, and integrated tests and evaluation. Separation assurance refers to the safe separation of the manned and unmanned aircraft during flight in the national airspace and how the planned Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) separation assurance systems perform with mixed operations of manned and unmanned aircraft. Studies will include the performance of the NextGen within flight tests that reflect realistic data latencies and uncertain trajectories of the aircraft.

 Communications include the command and control systems and radio frequencies used to enable and maintain safe operation of the unmanned aircraft. Part of this sub-project is to analyze and provide recommendations for the integration of safety-critical command and control systems and air traffic control communications that will ensure efficient and safe operation of unmanned aircraft in the national airspace. Human systems integration accounts for the human operator aspect in ground control stations. A test bed/database will be developed to provide information and a proof-of-concept for a ground control station to operate in the National Airspace System.

Certification essentially accounts for determining and meeting the airworthiness standards for the unmanned aircraft avionics within the Federal Aviation Regulation requirements. Finally, the integrated tests and evaluation are designed to integrate and test mature technical concepts and demonstrate viability. These technology development performance evaluations will be conducted in full-mission, human-in-the-loop simulations and flight tests to demonstrate UAS in the NAS capabilities.

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