Efforts to protect air travelers are becoming essential as business leaders ramp up efforts to use unmanned aircraft for agriculture, real estate, inspections, and commercial purposes, officials from the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership said today.

The most recent step is an effort involving the NASA’s Ames Research Center and the six Federal Aviation Administration-designated unmanned aircraft systems testing sites, including Virginia Tech’s, to test NASA’s unmanned aircraft system traffic-management platform.

In the first in a series of tests of the research platform involving non-NASA aircraft, pilots from the six test sites recently flew 22 aircraft simultaneously.

“Virginia is pioneering the use of unmanned aircraft systems,” said Gov. Terry McAuliffe. “Our research teams are clearing the way for the use of unmanned aircraft for pipeline inspections, search and rescue efforts, and commercial applications still in the ideation stage. Moving this technology safely into the nation’s skies has tremendous potential to create new opportunities that will be invaluable as we work to build a new Virginia economy.”

The Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership oversaw flights in Blacksburg, Virginia, and in Maryland with its partners at the University of Maryland.

“About halfway through that first flight window, when NASA called and said, ‘Congratulations, everybody, we’ve exceeded our success criteria. You’re all clear to land as needed’ — that was a really satisfying moment,” said John Coggin, the chief engineer for the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership in Virginia. “Then we caught our breath and got ready for the next window.”

Flight teams at all of the Federal Aviation Administration-selected unmanned aircraft systems test sites in Virginia, Maryland, Alaska, New York, North Dakota, Nevada, and Texas communicated with the traffic management system at the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California. At each location, the crew members could see the status of the air traffic across the nation.

“The unmanned aircraft system initiative at Virginia Tech has resulted in historic flights that demonstrate the enormous potential of this technology to help people,” President Tim Sands said. “We oversaw the first research flights establishing the viability of unmanned aircraft delivering medical supplies in remote locations, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. By connecting our research to real-world needs we are serving our communities and teaching our students to use their talents to make the world a better place.”  

The latest tests bring the unmanned aircraft industry one step closer to having situational awareness for low level air traffic similar to the one that supports manned aviation.

“As we move into a new era in aviation, the test sites are an ideal research ground for technology like this,” said Rose Mooney, the executive director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership. “We foresee ourselves continuing to work with NASA and the FAA on traffic management and integration research for unmanned aircraft.”

NASA said it will use the data from the tests to refine their technology and pursue more complex applications — for beyond-line-of-sight operations over rural areas, for example.

Ultimately, the Federal Aviation Administration will determine whether, when, and how to implement traffic-management technology, but all six test sites and NASA are working closely with the FAA to provide the data that will help inform policy development for unmanned aircraft.

As pilots operated a quadcopter and a fixed-wing aircraft in Blacksburg, Coggin was in a mobile operations center monitoring the traffic management interface, a phone in one hand and a radio in the other, talking with NASA and the Blacksburg flight teams.

Meanwhile, in Maryland and the other test sites, other unmanned aircraft also took off, all communicating their positions to NASA.

By the end of the afternoon, the Virginia Tech teams in Blacksburg and Maryland had flown all four aircraft simultaneously during three separate flight windows, providing data that will help NASA refine and develop the traffic-management technology.

They also demonstrated a self-contained telemetry box that can allow any aircraft to interface smoothly with a central air traffic management platform, regardless of the software installed on the vehicle.

Flying more than one vehicle and maintaining communications between the aircraft and ground control is all in a day’s work for the team’s pilots.

“But here, all of the aircraft were actively providing data to a third party, and that data could be utilized to ensure safety of the national airspace system. That’s really the take-home,” Coggin said.

While NASA had tested their technology with a smaller number of aircraft before, these flights represented the first time it had been deployed across multiple test sites, which have different geographies, different weather, and different aircraft.

“This common platform will give UAS operators the ability to understand when there’s going to be a conflict and avoid it, including operators who wouldn’t necessarily be aware of each other’s activities,” Coggin said.

The Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, headquartered at the Institute of Critical Technology and Applied Science, was chosen by the Federal Aviation Administration in December 2013 to be one of only six national test sites for unmanned aircraft systems.

The partnership has flown more than 1,600 missions in the last year — more than any other test site — and pioneered applications for unmanned aircraft systems in search-and-rescue, emergency response, journalism, and health care. Current research includes beyond visual line of sight objectives, certification, airport incursion, emergency management, air traffic management, and airspace integration, in addition to unmanned aircraft systems, sensor, and application development and testing.

Drone testing
Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership team members Tyson LeRoy (left) and Matt Burton fly unmanned aircraft in Blacksburg, Virginia, to help test an Unmanned Traffic Management research platform developed by NASA’s Ames Research Center.
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