Unmanned drones tested with planes and helicopters

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FAIRBANKS, Alaska - Throughout the week The Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Integration, otherwise known as ACUASI have joined forces with the Federal Aviation Administration and other companies testing manned un-manned aircraft at Poker Flat Research range outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. ACUASI is one of 10 lead participants in the country that is part of the Integrated Pilot Program. ACUASI is taking the lead on this project collecting data to help integrate drones into the national airspace.

Darryel Adams is the program manager with the Integration Pilot Project with the Federal Aviation Administration. Adams and his partners traveled from Washington D.C to be a part of this event. "So this week has been a series of tests working with the various team members that are associated with the university. They are testing various technologies from detect and avoid onboard the aircraft to ground based radar systems," said Adams.

They conducting double blind studies with a helicopter and a fixed-wing aircraft that flew through the area. Testing the drone to detect and avoid the aircraft. There was a visual observer ground to call out any incoming traffic and they tested the ground based radar systems along with the on-board iris optical systems.

He said there are various aspects that are extremely challenging in evaluating how they conduct these tests safely. This partnership between the FFA and the university are testing the boundaries of those technologies to see are they acceptable, where they need to improvement and potentially what are some other methods or technologies they can implement. He says it is also important to note that this is just one program at the university they are perusing. They also run a test site that is part of the “SURE” program. he says with all the work that they are doing here they are going to share the data across the spectrum with the other programs and universities.

“I am working also with the city of San Diego. And there are four other program managers that are working with the other 7,” said Adams.

Adams spoke about how this programs differs from the others.

“They differ in several ways. Number one they are a research facility. Obviously very different terrain as in urban areas like San Diego. So they challenges that you face here in Alaska are going to be very different from what you see in the lower 48. It’s complementary but it also provides a different avenue for collecting that necessary data to ensure that we are doing is safe,” said Adams.

“Obviously our focus in the past has always been the safety of the flying public, general aviation, which we have seen today flying through the area. And there are several challenges with this new technology because they are so small they are hard to actually see from other aircraft, so you want to develop a mechanisms and policies and processes to protect the people on the ground which is very important to us, but also the flying public as well.” He said.

ACUASI and the other lead participants are striving to operate drones beyond the visual line of sight and using the detect and avoid system on the drone that is one of the elements that determines if it operates to FAA standard.

There are way points programmed drone that determines it’s flying this pattern. And the pilots on the ground have the ability to interject themselves and take control of that aircraft immediately if they have to. Adams says that’s part of the visual observer’s job. Their job is to see if all the airspace is safe and to detect and avoid the system senses something that come into the perimeter. He says most of the time the drone will drop 100 feet to give the airplane a right of way, or sometimes if it is severe enough it will come all the way back and return to landing automatically.

Nick Atkins, director of operations for ACUASI, he said, “Depending on which system we’re talking about, it could be as simple as, the pilot is still in the loop when it comes to un-manned aviation. So when you have a pilot down here they can get information that shows up on a screen that says there is something out here then the pilot can take action and have the aircraft descend or move in the appropriate direction.” He added, "the Data is so important. I don't know if people realize how important capturing this data is. To go make the systems better and help the F-A-A make decisions on whether or not we can go beyond visual line of sight with these machines. Because we have to have a way to say that we are not going to run into another aircraft or cause a hazard. And to get the Data into these machines and say, “here’s what you have to look for,” because you need to tell the machine what to look for it’s amazing,” Said Atkins.

Integrating Un-manned aircraft into the national airspace could open up the door to operations including locating lost or missing hikers, to delivering medicines to zoning and mapping. And for the Teams, this is just another successful mission that has flying towards the future.