The Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport now has new mobile radar equipment to research unmanned aircraft as part of $5 million state and federal grants.
The equipment and grant will be used to test beyond line of sight operation, said Art Huber, deputy director of operations with the Air Force Research Laboratory. Currently drones can only be flown in the line of sight of the pilot but the research will test flying them further and using radar and other technology to avoid crashes.
“The Federal Aviation Administration requires that you be able to avoid airborne collisions with other traffic in the airspace,” Huber said.
That’s called see and avoid. Every pilot has that responsibility, Huber said, but pilots can’t do that with a drone they can’t see.
“We are looking for means to enable that operator, who is on the ground, who is separated from his aircraft, to be able to do the see-and-avoid function,” Huber said.
That could be accomplished in a variety of ways, he said, like with multiple observers. Someone else could see the drone and radio back to the pilot in charge to tell him which way to turn to avoid traffic.
Another way is a chase airplane. Someone could follow the drone and look out for other traffic and command the drone to change its course.
“A third way would be to put sensors on board the drone and have it look for other traffic,” Huber said. “That test is very expensive and the technology is not quite there yet to do that reliably.”
But Huber and his partners believe they have found a way to perform the see-and-avoid function successfully.
“It enables the pilot to see the wide area that’s out there that even aircraft goes beyond his visual line of sight, he could still have situational awareness about where that aircraft is and other traffic is to avoid it,” Huber said.
That is beyond line of sight operation and it could make a big difference for many industries,
The project would use airspace from Dayton, Columbus and London, Ohio. It would monitor those fields in order to fly a drone.
The new technology could help the military, commercial and civil industries.
“You can imagine you are an Amazon or Google or some other company that wants to deliver a product using a drone,” Huber said. “They have to solve this problem — being able to deliver from many miles from some central distribution point to the customer and do that without seeing everywhere that drone is traveling.”
David Gallagher, chief of staff at Ohio/Indiana UAS Center and Test Complex, which is headquartered in Springfield, said it could help those industries located in the Miami Valley.
“They bring in people from other parts of the country to test their systems so this will allow an environment for people to test their aircraft,” he said. “We believe that will attract more business and bring jobs to Ohio.”
The best way to test beyond line of sight, they believe, is at the Springfield airport using the new mobile radar unit in a trailer to track the unmanned aircraft.
A study called Oasis was done a few years ago, Huber said, and it found there was a common interest between the state of Ohio and Air Force Research Lab.
The two entities came together and found Springfield was the best area to accomplish its goals.
“Springfield is a relatively rural setting, small towns, lots of farm land … we have minimized the risk by being here,” Huber said.
The program has been going on for about a year and a half and after more research is done, it will be presented to the Federal Aviation Administration.
“After we conduct our experiments and gather data, we need to make our application to the FAA. I imagine it will take another six to nine months for that to be granted,” Huber said.
If it is granted, then Huber and his partners will be able to operate and conduct more research and later bring in universities and firms to help.
It will be the first of its kind to operate in unrestricted airspace, Huber said, which is uncommon but would allow many people and companies to flock to the area to test operations.
Testing will begin in about a month at the Springfield airport and it will later be presented to the FAA once completed.
By the numbers:
$5 million — Total investment
$2.5 million — Amount each contributed by Ohio and the Air Force Research Laboratories
Six to nine — Months it could take the FAA to review the research
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