The vast open spaces of Idaho, Kansas and North Dakota may hold a solution to one of the unmanned aircraft industry's most critical problems: finding places where companies and agencies can legally and safely test their aircraft.
Access to the National Airspace System is controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration, which requires unmanned aircraft to be operated as safely as manned aircraft.
Unmanned Aircraft Systems Testing
Pilots of manned aircraft normally may simply file a flight plan, then fly under visual flight rules, which rely on their ability to see other aircraft and avoid them, or instrument flight rules, under which air traffic controllers on the ground separate aircraft safely.
The technology needed to enable unmanned aircraft to sense other ,- aircraft and avoid them is being developed, but it may not be ready for years.
Meanwhile, unmanned aircraft operators, including federal agencies and manufacturers, must seek FAA permission to fly in the NAS. Approval may entail issuance of a Certificate of Authorization, an experimental airworthiness certificate, or creation of a Temporary Flight Restriction. Seeking and winning approval can be a lengthy process.
Among the western U.S. facilities involved in testing of unmanned aircraft systems are those at the Idaho National Laboratory, the Kansas Air National Guard's Great Plains Joint Training Center and the University of North Dakota's Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research and Training. They all have plenty of space, but they differ in many respects. Here's a brief look at each.
Idaho National Laboratory
The Idaho National Laboratory, operated by a Battelle-led team for the Depamnent of Energy, conducts a wide range of activities that includes research in nuclear energy, environmental studies and critical infrastructure protection as well as testing of unmanned air vehicles and unmanned ground vehicles.
The INL site, with key facilities located 32 miles from Idaho Falls, encompasses 890 square miles of controlled-access flat or rolling high desert terrain, 94 percent of which is undeveloped. UAVs fly in a 700 square mile section of the site.
"Our UAV test range ... is part of our Critical Infrastructure Test Range," says Greg Miller, project manager for unmanned vehicle systems. 'These test ranges are available certainly for our own use, but we also invite others to use these test ranges collaboratively with us and for a range of other purposes."
The CQ-l OA Snow Goose unmanned cargo aircraft prepares to fly at the Great Plains Training Center, Kan
Most of the test flights at INL involve relatively small aircraft at low altitudes.
"We're flying three-meter-wingspan tactical UAVs, 500 to 1,000 feet above ground," Miller says. The most commonly used airframes, he says, are the Arcturus T-15 and T-16. Other UAVs that have flown there include the RnR APV-3 and the Advanced Ceramics Research Silver Fox.
'The primary backbone of our research involves our own payloads and sensor packages on airframes we have purchased from commercial suppliers," Miller says. "We're not so much in the airframe operational research. We're more into system integration and sensor integration. And, lately, more collaborative behaviors of UAVs in combination with unmanned ground vehicles.
"However, we're also had ... collaborative agreements with a number of manufacturers to develop capabilities that benefit both of us," he adds.
"Our range is available to other public UAV operators in research areas who wish to come out and fly under our Certificate of Authorization," he says. "On the civil side, we have been limited to co-operative research and development agreements where the INL leases airframes if those airframes are not already owned."
The INL site operates under a COA limited to daylight line-of-sight flights by certain types of UAVs up to 6,000 feet above sea level. The range is about 5,000 feet above sea level, so UAVs can fly up to 1,000 feet above ground level. "
Preparing to fly a UAV at the Idaho National Laboratory.
Preparing to fly a UAV at the Idaho National Laboratory
The site boasts a dedicated UAV airfield that is 1,000 feet long by 100 feet wide, federal authority to broadcast on virtually any radio frequency, and a cadre of highly experienced roboticists, says Nicholas R. Alley, an engineer with the laboratory's UAV program. "Our faculty support here is probably the best you could find anywhere."
The INL collaborates with the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and other government agencies. The U.S. Forest Service has discussed using the site to test UAVs aimed at detecting and monitoring forest fires.
Like others involved in UAV testing, INL would like airspace with fewer limitations.
Mobile Ground Stations
"Most of the players are interested in flying UAVs beyond line of sight, which of course would open up a vast new area of applications," Miller says. "We are interested in that too. We would like to have some sort of restricted airspace." However, because of safety concerns in the absence of sense-and-avoid technology, he acknowledges that is unlikely anytime soon.
"One of the ways we seek to mitigate that is we have mobile ground stations and mobile observers, so we can fly over rather large areas, remaining within the constraints of the COA by following the bird along in a pickup on the ground with a mobile control station," Miller says. "And we can hand off the ground station from one to another to another. So we can simulate large area flights, long-duration flights, while remaining within the safety requirements and the restrictions of our COA. And that's probably something not a lot of other COA possessors have the capability to do."
As for future uses of the range, Miller says further research into systems integration will be prominent.
"I think that the next breakthroughs will be in collaborative behaviors of teams of UAVs with ground robots performing semi-autonomously," he says. "We are very interested in pushing up the autonomy scale. That is, from teleoperation to many more decisions being made by the robots themselves. "
This summer, INL is cooperating with the Defense Department's Joint Ground Robotics Enterprise to test collaboration of unmanned air vehicles with unmanned ground vehicles. The ground vehicles have a narrow range of vision, which UAVs can augment by serving as their "eyes in the sky," Miller says.
Great Plains Joint Training Center
At the Kansas National Guard's Great Plains Training Center, which consists of 33,873 acres 11 miles southwest of Salina, Kansas, the emphasis is on training military personnel and emergency first responders, but the center also is used for testing unmanned aircraft systems.
In early May, Mist Mobility Integrated Systems Technology, Inc., based in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, flew its CQ-I0A Snow Goose unmanned cargo aircraft system at the center under an Army Research Laboratory contract to test a payload.
The Snow Goose, a guided, powered parafoil that consists almost entirely of commercial off-the-shelf components, is the world's first UAV designed to carry cargo, MMIST says. U.S. military forces have used it in Iraq and Afghanistan since last summer. It can be launched from an airborne C-130 Hercules transport aircraft or from a Humvee or other ground vehicle traveling at 30-40 miles per hour.
"This partnership between the Kansas National Guard's Great Plains Joint Training Center and a commercial entity is an historic first," Maj. Gen. Tod Bunting, the state's adjutant general, said in announcing the tests. "The wide-open Kansas air spaces at our weapons range in Salina make it the ideal site for such test flights. In addition, there are a number of nearby facilities there and other locations where personnel can be trained in the use of such equipment."
Among those facilities is Herington Regional Airport, which MMIST wants to use for UAV flight training. The Kansas National Guard has sponsored a COA application for that use, says Chuck Jarnot, an MMIST consultant.
Choosing UAV Test Sites
The Kansas Air National Guard's 54-square-mile Smoky Hill Weapons Range, which is being integrated into the Great Plains Joint Training Center, has a considerable advantage: restricted airspace, which gives the range far greater flexibility in operations than those operating under limited COAs.
Moreover, this restricted airspace is adjacent to Salina Municipal Airport, a former bomber base with a 12,000-fooÂ£. runway. So far, all UAV flights have taken off from and landed within the restricted airspace, but the Kansas National Guard is seeking COAs that would allow testing of larger craft, such as the General Atomics Predator, from the Salina airport.
The range is used to train tactical air controllers in air-ground operations, especially close air support. Expanding training to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles makes sense, says Lt. Co!. Jeff J. Jordan (ANG), the joint training officer for the Kansas Air National Guard. "You have to train on unmanned aerial vehicles because they are so much a part of the way we conduct warfare now," he says.
In addition to the Snow Goose, other unmanned aircraft that have flown at the range include MI Corp.'s Shadow tactical UAV and the smaller, hand-launched AeroVironment Raven. "We're going to eventually have to get Predators in," Jordan says, to train more military operators in their use.
"MMIST investigated potential UAV test sites in several states before choosing the Kansas facility," says Jamot, the MMIST consultant. Company officials chose the range, he says, because they felt it offered an unusually attractive combination of favorable attributes, including: low population density ("Kansas is the size of Pennsylvania but has only 2.4 million people"); a low-obstacle terrain, devoid of tall buildings, forests, and mountains that can make it difficult to test and recover UAVs; good flying weather; low elevation, as the site's elevation of about 1,200-1,400 feet is good for developmental testing of UAVs, which often have relatively high weight-to-power ratios; a UAV-friendly political climate; and academic support and an aerospace workforce. Kansas universities offer aerospace expertise and facilities such as wind tunnels that can be used in UAV research and development. The state's well-developed aviation industry has a large number of experienced aerospace workers.
Kansas also offers both types of airspace needed for UAV testing: restricted airspace, ideal for the low-volume, high-risk testing that is crucial for developmental testing and, through COAs, airspace for high-volume, low-risk testing, such as for UAV flight training or endurance tests.
The Snow Goose tests in May "went real well," Jordan says. "We're excited about getting them out here" because now military teams can learn to operate the cargo UAV long before they employ it in combat. The three-week test program was interrupted by this spring's unusually severe weather, but the MMIST team successfully completed about a dozen flights, all launched from ground vehicles, Jamot says.
Written by Lee Ewing.