The efforts of government agencies and the drone industry to advance the cause of UAV flights beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) continue with vigor. Recently, the Springfield–Beckley Municipal Airport, a joint use civil-military airport located five miles south of the central business district of Springfield, Ohio, announced that it would be partnering with the Air Force and the State of Ohio to become the venue for the testing of their Ground-Based Sense and Avoid (GBSAA) system. The Air Force and State of Ohio are each investing $2.5M for a total of $5M to develop the GBSAA capability.

The project would take place in the airspace surrounding Dayton, Columbus and London, Ohio. The system will use data from Air Traffic Control (ATC) radars operated by the FAA at these sites to monitor the surrounding fields in order to provide the situational awareness UAV pilots need in order to comply with the FAA mandate to “see and avoid” other air traffic.

The equipment will be used to enable BVLOS operations by the Air Force Research Laboratory at first and then later by civil and commercial entities in cooperation with the state of Ohio. Current legislation and FAA regulations only allow UAVs to be flown in the line of sight of the remote pilot in command (RPIC), but the new capability will support research into BVLOS systems to avoid crashes as well as other UAV technologies.

Sense and avoid technologies are an integral part of the new equipment and the government agencies are aiming to use them to explore other safety technologies that prevent encounters between manned and unmanned aircraft in controlled airspace.

As with manned aircraft, the pilot in command, in this case a RPIC, has the responsibility to avoid encounters with other aircraft but pilots can’t do that with a drone they can’t see. The tests will focus primarily in providing RPICs and UAV operators with the means to know the whereabouts of, and avoid, other aircraft in the vicinity or along their flight path.

This new GBSAA equipment is opening up new and exciting opportunities. Traditionally, such tests could be accomplished in a variety of ways by using multiple personnel strategically located along the UAV’s flight path. These “observers” could see the UAV and radio back to the RPIC and tell him which way to turn to avoid traffic. This method is cumbersome and less reliable.

Another alternative is a manned chase airplane following the drone and looking out for traffic. The situational awareness provided by the chase airplane allows the RPIC to command the drone to change course as necessary. This alternative is also cumbersome, expensive, and adds a second vehicle to the equation.

The third and more palatable way would be to equip the drone with sense-and-avoid sensors and automate the anti-collision function. The state of this technology is advancing rapidly but is not there yet in terms of acceptable accuracy and reliability. Many companies throughout the world are investing considerable sums of money in getting a commercially viable system with a high degree of accuracy.

According to officials involved with the new testing facility, a better way to test future BVLOS technologies in their facility is by using the new GBSAA capability to track any air traffic near an unmanned aircraft undergoing test. Managers of the tests at the Springfield airport are confident their system will enable RPICs to “see” the wide area that surrounds their unmanned aircraft even when the vehicle goes beyond his/her visual line of sight. The RPIC could still have situational awareness and be sufficiently informed of where their aircraft and any other aerial vehicles in the vicinity are.

Testing will begin in July at the Springfield airport and later will be presented to the FAA for analysis and approval to conduct on-going flights through issuance of a Certificate of Waiver and Authorization (COA). The institution and regularization of BVLOS flights could make a big difference for many industries, so we will continue covering any developments that advance the cause of a safe and complete integration of manned and unmanned aircraft in controlled airspace.