HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – A team led by the Communication, Navigation and Surveillance/Air Traffic Management Center of Excellence here was honored Oct. 22 for their ground-breaking success with ground-based detect and avoid systems for remotely piloted aircraft.
During its annual awards ceremony, the Air Traffic Control Association recognized a team from Hanscom; the MITRE Corp.; the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center; and the Raytheon Co.; along with Air Force Research Laboratory researchers and other key mission partners with the ATCA Team Award for Outstanding Achievement, which noted the team’s “great work…to advance the science, safety and efficiency of air traffic control.”
“As part of our mission, we work to ensure safe and efficient access to the global airspace for Air Force aircraft,” said Brett Johnson, CNS/ATM CoE branch chief. “Federal Aviation Administration flight rules are geared toward manned systems, and the pilot in command must have situational awareness to fly within the National Airspace System. This system provides that situational awareness to the pilot in command of an RPA and enables beyond-visual-line-of-sight flight operations for that unmanned system.”
In 2014, the Hanscom-led team sought to develop and field this capability for the Air Force Special Operations Command.
The FAA mandates manned or unmanned aircraft pilots must have a way to see and avoid other aircraft. Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, personnel who fly MQ-9 Reaper aircraft to a training site required visual observers on the ground in trucks or flying chase planes in place to follow the RPA.
“This method was acceptable to the FAA,” said Johnson. “However, this process could only work during daylight operations and if there was good weather, so we knew we needed to come up with a better process.”
The team looked at various solutions and figured out an innovative way to use the hardware and software from the FAA’s Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System, or STARS, to provide visibility beyond-line-of-sight. After successfully validating the team’s solution, the FAA granted AFSOC a Certificate of Authorization to conduct beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) flight operations without the need for chase aircraft or ground observers.
Not only does this provide the Cannon team all-weather and 24/7 capability, it provides greater safety, and reduces costs by more than $1 million a year.
More recently, the Hanscom-led team worked with AFRL to provide the BVLOS capability in Ohio airspace.
“We tried a number of different options,” said Ron Arsenault, CNS/ATM CoE Ground Based Detect and Avoid program manager. “We originally looked at a mothballed radar in Wilmington, Ohio, which was determined to be unsustainable because of its age. Then we looked to see if we could use a tower in Springfield, Ohio, which was deemed too costly. The team overcame several technical and programmatic challenges and delivered a groundbreaking, safe capability for unmanned air vehicle operations in the NAS.”
The Air Force team then came up with a truly innovative approach to put the STARS hardware on a vehicle. The team was able to retrofit a 2007 Winnebago with the necessary equipment. Once the team validated this method, the FAA granted the Air Force’s second COA to AFRL for BVLOS flight operations within the NAS. In April, using this technology, small unmanned aircraft were flown for a live demonstration in unrestricted airspace in Ohio.
“We observed unmanned platform flight operations being demonstrated on an active runway where Cessnas and other civil aircraft were doing touch and go’s right beside us,” said Johnson.
Arsenault said the approvals are unique.
“There are thousands of certificates out there, but all of those have limitations on them,” he said. “But this is truly the only one that has no restrictions on it.”
The Ohio solution covers a more than 200 square mile flight area near the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport.
“The combined team has made unmanned travel within the national airspace much safer,” said Johnson. “Our success is because we had all the key players right here in Massachusetts – from the Air Force, Volpe, Raytheon and MITRE.”