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Initial test flights for UAV collision-avoidance system "went great"

New Mexico State University's Physical Science Laboratory has successfully completed the first round of test flights for a collision-avoidance system that promises to be a key to safe operation of unmanned aircraft in civilian airspace.

A member of the TAAC team performs pre-flight checks on a UAV before a test flight at White Sands Missile Range to evaluate a sense-and-avoid system.

"Everything went great," Phil Copeland, technical director of PSL's Aerospace and Autonomous Systems Laboratory, said of the test flights that were conducted in November at the Stallion Range on the northern side of White Sands Missile Range. "We are scheduled to go to the next level of testing in January."

Automated sense-and-avoid systems are the key technical hurdle that must be overcome for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to fly safely in the National Airspace System controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration.

PSL's UAV Technical Analysis and Applications Center is testing and evaluating a system being developed by Defense Research Associates Inc. of Dayton, Ohio, to meet the FAA's requirement that UAV sense-and-avoid systems must at least as good as a human pilot at avoiding midair collisions. The project is supported by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory and the 46th Test Group at Holloman Air Force Base.

The first test flights, conducted at the Stallion site during the week of Nov. 7, were designed to test the integration of the sense-and-avoid system aboard the PSL's leased Aerostar UAV, an unmanned aircraft with a 21-foot wingspan.

"We wanted to make sure the sensor and the vehicle work well together, and to tune the system," said Dennis "Zak" Zaklan, UAV operations manager for PSL. "Next we will fly the system against an intruder."

The team expects to use two types of piloted aircraft, possibly a Cessna 172 and a T-38 military training jet, as "intruders" to test the system's sensing abilities.

The third round of test flights will evaluate the system's ability to maneuver the UAV to avoid a collision.

"We are pleased with the whole project and we're excited to be part of this team with Defense Research Associates and the Air Force Research Lab," Copeland said. When the FAA accepts UAV flights in the National Airspace System, he said, unmanned aircraft can be used in applications ranging from homeland security to agriculture.

"UAVs are useful in situations that are very dull, very dangerous or very dirty," he said. "Those are the prime reasons you would want to replace a pilot - in situations that require extended flight times or that expose a pilot to hazards."

Using the recent Gulf Coast hurricanes as an example, Zaklan noted that UAVs could be used to search for stranded people after a disaster, or to put up a communication system to replace a cell tower that is not working.

The sense-and-avoid technology being developed for UAVs could also help make commercial airliners safer, Copeland said. Some commercial aircraft now use what are known as "cooperative" sense-and-avoid systems, which require transponders on both aircraft involved in an encounter. The FAA mandate for UAVs is a system that can avoid a collision with a "non-cooperative" intruder.

"This new technology could transfer directly to commercial aviation," Copeland said.

The Defense Research Associates (DRA) sense-and-avoid system uses optical technology, which Copeland said is an FAA preferred technology. The full system uses three sensors and has a field of view of about 210 degrees. The system's processors select pixels moving differently from the background and issue an alert.

That's the "sense" part of sense-and-avoid. For the "avoid" part, the system identifies the target and initiates an appropriate avoidance maneuver.

The technical challenges of the project relate to the processing speed, size and weight of the system, Copeland said. "DRA's objective is to develop a system that is small enough to fit into a small suitcase."

Zaklan said the DRA/PSL team is "accelerating the schedule" for getting UAVs into civilian airspace.

"The FAA believes sense-and-avoid systems will be flying in eight to 10 years," he said. "We feel the technology is much closer. We are right on the edge of success."