With unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) expected to take to the skies alongside piloted crafts in the next year or so, NASA has completed its first test of the Next-Gen air traffic control system in a commercial-sized, unmanned aircraft.
The agency’s Dryden Flight Research Center flew its Kihana MQ -- an aircraft with a 66-foot wingspan, a takeoff weight of more than 10,000 pounds, and a cruising altitude of 40,000 feet -- with an Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B device, onboard, in March, according to NASA.
ADS-B is air tracking technology that planes in the US airspace will use once the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) implements its Next-Gen air traffic control system, a multibillion-dollar technology refresh of the system. All planes operating in certain US airspace must adopt the ADS-B devices by January 2020.
The Kihana MQ’s flight also marked the first time NASA tested the system on its Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the National Airspace System, (or UAS in the NAS research project). The project is aimed at dealing with technical-related safety and operational challenges that come with unmanned and commercial aircraft sharing the same airspace. While UAVs have mainly been used by the US military for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance work, the space agency envisions new uses for them, including emergency and lifesaving activities.
The ADS-B is far more sophisticated than the current air traffic control system and should help alleviate some of those challenges, according to NASA. Currently, planes use transponders to communicate with ground radar once every four to 12 seconds to determine an aircraft’s position, velocity, and altitude.
The ADS-B, on the other hand, communicates constantly with air traffic controllers to provide more accurate, real-time information about aircrafts while they are in flight. It also uses Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to more accurately display position, velocity, and altitude information about an aircraft.
Using the system aboard an unmanned aircraft gives air traffic controllers, pilots of other airborne vehicles, and pilots on the ground a much better idea of where the aircraft is in the airspace than the current air traffic control system, which only allows air traffic controllers to see aircrafts in a specific region of airspace.
For the test, the Kihana MQ flew for nearly three hours in restricted airspace over Dryden's Western Aeronautical Test Range, which is part of Edwards Air Force Base and the China Lake Naval Air Warfare Center.
The FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, N.J., recorded ADS-B data during the test flight and will help analyze the performance of the system, according to NASA. Researchers also tested new ADS-B laptop software on the ground that will be used to display surrounding air traffic information to UAS controllers on the ground.
NASA's Ikhana glides in for landing at Edwards Air Force Base after the first test flight of the new ADS-B aircraft tracking technology on an unmanned aircraft system.