Washington (Army News Service) — Jeff Bezos made news recently by announcing that his company Amazon is testing package-delivery transport using drones. Others in the private sector are looking at the idea of using drones for surveillance or transport as well, and hobbyists are also eager to get into the airspace.
What this means is that the skies could soon become pretty crowded, and some sort of regulation would be needed for safety, security and air traffic control.
This is where the Army can and is providing assistance that could soon regulate the flight of civilian drones over U.S. airspace.
In fact, the Army has been involved in discussions with the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, and other agencies regarding the use of unmanned aerial systems in the U.S. National Airspace System, or NAS, according to Viva Kelley, director of the Army's Unmanned Systems Airspace Integration Concepts Office.
Since the Army has already been using Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or UASs, which is a term it prefers to drones, for years, it has procedures in place and is developing new ones that could help with any new regulations, she said.
In fact, she noted, the Army has logged almost 2 million UAS flight-hours since 1991, with about half of those hours accrued in just the last few years.
While the vast majority of flight hours have been logged overseas, the Army currently flies UAS in the NAS for training, testing and contingency-type operations such as disaster assistance, she said.
However, without a pilot physically sitting in the plane, UAS do not meet the FAA regulation known as "See and Avoid," Kelley said. Therefore, the Army must file a Certificate of Authorization/Waiver with the FAA stating how it will operate in the NAS and how it will comply with the FAA regulation.
"We currently mitigate lack of compliance with the see and avoid requirement by having 'visual observers,' either on the ground or in a chase plane, depending on the type of operations," she said.
Also, several years ago, the Army invested in software technology to comply with the FAA regulation through its Ground-Based Sense and Avoid, or GBSAA, system.
While the other services have created unique systems that allow them access to specific airspace, the Army is currently in the development phase of producing a standardized system that meets rigorous FAA certification criteria. This system will then be shared by all the services.
The new system will use ground-based radar "to detect, track, fuse and classify all other manned and unmanned aircraft in the airspace," Kelley explained.
Then, the data from the surrounding airspace will be "analyzed based on algorithmic probabilities and prioritized relative to the rates and states of the UAS to provide an interface that allows the user to easily perform the avoid function," she continued.
The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Task Force reports to Congress annually on UAS in the NAS integration efforts.
The Army GBSAA team currently participates and sits on the Board of the Science and Research Panel for Sense and Avoid, which reports to the UAS Task Force. The FAA also participates and sits on the board.
Then, this UAS Task Force provides policy, standards, gaps and technology recommendations that will form the basis of a report known as the "SC-228 Minimum Operational Performance Standards."
Next year, the Army will start evaluation and operational testing at Fort Hood, Texas, and four other sites, not yet named, using its Gray Eagle UAS fleet. The results will be published by 2015, and will become part of the SC-228 Minimum Operational Performance Standards report, Kelley said.
There will also be additional UAS testing at Fort Hood, which falls under the Joint Warfighter Advisory Group, which is sponsored by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, U.S. Northern Command and the Army Test and Evaluation Command.
"Fort Hood continues to be a progressive site with outstanding operational and safety procedures and provides an excellent example for UAS standards," she said.
The Army GBSAA team is working especially close with the Air Force ABSAA team to reduce overall development cost, eliminate duplication of effort and ensure compatibility of systems, she added.