NASA and partners test unmanned aircraft technology in N.D.


GRAND FORKS, N.D. — A research team made of officials from government, industry, and higher education has completed two weeks of flight testing of “sense and avoid” technology that could some day help unmanned aircraft better integrate into the national air transportation system.

The MITRE Corporation and the University of North Dakota (UND) developed automatic sense and avoid computer software codes that were flown on board a NASA Langley Research Center general aviation aircraft. The NASA Langley Cirrus SR-22 flew 147 maneuvers during 39 hours of flight tests at the Grand Forks International Airport. A supporting UND aircraft flew more than 40 hours during the tests.

During the Limited Deployment-Cooperative Airspace Project (LD-CAP) flights, the NASA SR-22 demonstrated how technology onboard allowed it to sense and avoid a UND Cessna 172 “intruder” plane, flown by a university instructor pilot. The Cirrus, which has been developed as a testbed to assess and mimic unmanned aircraft systems, had a safety pilot in the cockpit, but researchers say computer programs developed by MITRE and UND automatically flew the plane.

“This partnership has allowed us to address challenges from a national perspective,” said Frank Jones, NASA Langley LD-CAP deployment lead. “The strengths that NASA Langley, MITRE and UND brought here have enabled us to accomplish a lot in terms of how much data we have been able to collect.”

The data from this flight test will validate work done in simulations and help engineers determine how they can design systems so that unmanned aircraft can be safely incorporated into the skies.

More than 100 leaders from academia, industry, government, the military and the general aviation community came to the Grand Forks Airport to observe the LD-CAP flight demonstration. Live on a large screen they saw how a remotely piloted aircraft, equipped with technology, including satellite-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) data-link tracking, could detect a plane in its vicinity, then automatically be safely maneuvered away from any possible conflict.

Unmanned aircraft systems are growing in popularity and have many possible uses, including remote firefighting, search and rescue, and surveillance. But their routine use in civil airspace creates technical, operational, and policy challenges.

LD-CAP is trying to address one of the biggest challenges — the development of a way for unmanned aircraft to sense and avoid other planes to compensate for not having a pilot on board. Automatic sense and avoid software includes the ability to keep aircraft safely separated from one another and to take immediate action to avoid imminent collisions when the ground-based, remote pilot does not react.

Organizers say sense and avoid technology is just one piece of the puzzle and that these initial flight tests further illustrate the complexity of incorporating remotely piloted aircraft into the national airspace.

“We are dealing with a very complex problem that no one organization can solve on its own,” said Jones. “The door is open and now it is time to gather data and explore the potential solutions.”

Follow-on testing is expected to feature additional advanced software by MITRE and UND, as well as sense-and-avoid software managed by a task automation framework developed by Draper Laboratory.

Solving the tough problems in air, space and earth science is what NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., has been known for almost since it was established as the United States’ first civilian aeronautics laboratory in 1917. Researchers at NASA Langley are focusing on some of the biggest technical challenges of our time, including global climate change, access to space, planetary exploration and revolutionizing airplanes and the air transportation system.

The MITRE Corporation is a not-for-profit organization that provides systems engineering, research and development, and information technology support to the government. It operates federally funded research and development centers for the Department of Defense, the FAA, the Internal Revenue Service, Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. MITRE’s participation in the joint LD-CAP research project is financed by company research and initiative funds.

The John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences at the University of North Dakota is a world-renowned center for aerospace learning, nationally acclaimed for its achievements in aviation education, atmospheric research, space studies, earth system science and policy, and computer science applications.

Draper Laboratory is a not-for-profit, engineering research and development organization dedicated to solving problems in national security, space systems, biomedical systems, and energy. Draper is developing advanced capabilities for remotely piloted aircraft based on its experience with complex mission management, strategic guidance navigation and control, and advanced autonomy in unmanned underwater vehicles and spacecraft, including the International Space Station.

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