Air Force researchers eye ways of enabling unmanned aircraft to operate alongside piloted planes in congested airport terminal areas

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AFB, Ohio, 23 June 2010. U.S. Air Force researchers are asking industry to develop autonomous control technologies that will enable unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to operate together with piloted aircraft in congested airport terminal areas, and to achieve what the Air Force calls "same base, same time, same tempo" operations.

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WRIGHT-PATTERSON AFB, Ohio, 23 June 2010. U.S. Air Force researchers are asking industry to develop autonomous control technologies that will enable unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to operate together with piloted aircraft in congested airport terminal areas, and to achieve what the Air Force calls "same base, same time, same tempo" operations.

Scientists at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, released a broad agency announcement (BAA-10-05-PKV) this week for the Autonomous Control of UAS Ground Operations in the Terminal Area program to enable UAVs to operate with manned aircraft by equipping unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to act autonomously and react like a manned aircraft so they can navigate the terminal area alongside manned commercial and general-aviation aircraft. The emphasis of this program is on ground operations, Air Force officials say.

The Air Force primarily is interested in five technology challenges for this program: communication-based response; navigation and collision avoidance; intent of other aircraft; integrity management; and sensors.

Air Force researchers chose Barron Associates Inc. in Charlottesville, Va., last April to develop autonomous sense-and-avoid (SAA) collision-avoidance technology for UAS to prevent them from hitting or interfering with other manned and unmanned aircraft as part of the Multi-Vehicle Unmanned Aircraft Systems Sense And Avoid (MUSAA) program. Barron Associates specialists in intelligent and adaptive technologies now are finding ways to enable UAVs to perform the same essential functions as a human aircraft pilot -- see and avoid other aircraft.

The communication-based response portion of the Autonomous Control of UAS Ground Operations in the Terminal Area program involves the sensitive nature of how quickly ground controllers can communicate with aircraft in the terminal and ensure the aircraft respond and act quickly on controller directives. UAS should be able to receive, acknowledge, and perform all commands from air traffic control (ATC) as quickly as manned aircraft -- and obtain clarification in the case of unclear instructions or if the UAS believes controllers have given an incorrect command. Autonomous response to ATC is a potential solution, Air Force officials say.

Navigation and collision avoidance involves the ability of UAVs to complete their assigned tasks autonomously and in ways familiar to human controllers and pilots after receiving commands from ATC. This should not require extensive air field surveys or changes to the air field infrastructure.

Intent of other aircraft involves the ability of UAS to determine the intent of other aircraft based on data from onboard sensors and an understanding of typical airfield operations. By logging ATC communications, for example, the UAS could understand the status of nearby aircraft, which could enable the UAS to be more proactive than reactive in its behavior.

Integrity management involves UAS ability to evaluate the integrity of systems and data to deal effectively with the complex and critical nature of the terminal area environment.

The sensors portion of the program calls for winning companies to investigate appropriate sensor suites, with an emphasis on sensors already in existence on typical UAS, as well as those being considered for functions such as sense and avoid.

The Air Force plans to award two contracts for the first phase of the Autonomous Control of UAS Ground Operations in the Terminal Area program, each worth about $500,000. After the initial evaluation phase, the Air Force will choose one contractor for the approximately $4 million remaining three years of work.

Phase I will design an architecture to enable UAS to operate with manned aircraft in the terminal area. The winning contractor will implement and test this architecture in Phase II, and undertake algorithm development, simulation, and ground testing, with a final demonstration that takes a UAS from its parking area to the runway where the "clear for takeoff" command is given.

Other aircraft, both on the ground and in the terminal airspace, may be real or simulated. Responses to real-world challenges such as changes in route, obstacles, incorrect or conflicting ATC commands, and misunderstood commands also will be demonstrated.

Companies interested should submit white papers by 9 July 2010, with proposal due dates to be given to those submitting white papers. The first contracts are expected by the end of September.

For technical questions or concerns, contact the Air Force Research Lab's Bonnie Schwartz by phone at 937-255-3546, by e-mail at schwartz@wpafb.af.mil. For contracting questions or concerns, contact Edward Davidson by phone at 937-255-5459, or by e-mail at Edward.davidson@wpafb.af.mil.

More information is online at https://www.fbo.gov/spg/USAF/AFMC/AFRLWRS/BAA-10-05-PKV/listing.html.

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