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Feds Carving Up U.S. Airspace For Drone Tests

Posted by Carlo Munoz on

Washington: Unmanned military aircraft may soon have a permanent home in U.S. commercial airspace, according to a Defense Department official.

The Pentagon and the Federal Aviation Administration are carving out between four to 10 “bubbles” in civilian airspace above the United States to test UAS, Steve Pennington, executive director of the Defense Policy Board on Federal Aviation, said today.

These airspace bubbles will be located across the country and provide DoD and the FAA space to show that UAS can fly in heavily-traveled commercial airspace in all conditions across the United States.

The sites will not be co-located with existing DoD sites that have been cleared to fly UAS in the United States, such as Grand Forks Air Force Base, ND, Pennington said. However, he said the new airspace sites will likely butt up against those DoD-owned sites.

DoD will begin preliminary site selection for those locations by the end of 2012, Pennington said.

The unmanned aircraft will use a ground-based sense-and-avoid system for the early flight tests scheduled for the airspace locations. Sense and avoid technology allows unmanned aircraft to detect other planes in the area and change its course to avoid midair collisions.

The ground-based system will relay information from air traffic control and other sources on the location of all aircraft flying in the area of the UAS. That info will then be relayed to the UAS pilot on the ground, who can then maneuver the aircraft through the air traffic.

As tests progress, DoD officials plan to move to a partially automated sense-and-avoid system on board the aircraft, Pennington said.

Creation of these airspace bubbles was part of the FAA reauthorization bill proposed earlier this year. Lawmakers tabled passage of the FAA bill until September, when Congress is set to return from its summer recess.

Once passed, Pennington predicted that there would be a lot of “political jockeying” by lawmakers to land one of the test sites, given the money and resources DoD plans to pump into the effort.

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