NASA Tests Unmanned Flight With Next-Gen Air Traffic Technology

By: 
April 25, 2012

With unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) expected to take to the skies alongside piloted crafts in the next year or so, NASA has completed its first test of the Next-Gen air traffic control system in a commercial-sized, unmanned aircraft.

The agency's Dryden Flight Research Center flew its Kihana MQ -- an aircraft with a 66-foot wingspan, a takeoff weight of more than 10,000 pounds, and a cruising altitude of 40,000 feet -- with an Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B device, onboard, in March, according to NASA.

ADS-B is air tracking technology that planes in the US airspace will use once the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) implements its Next-Gen air traffic control system, a multibillion-dollar technology refresh of the system. All planes operating in certain US airspace must adopt the ADS-B devices by January 2020.

The Kihana MQ's flight also marked the first time NASA tested the system on its Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the National Airspace System, (or UAS in the NAS research project). The project is aimed at dealing with technical-related safety and operational challenges that come with unmanned and commercial aircraft sharing the same airspace. While UAVs have mainly been used by the US military for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance work, the space agency envisions new uses for them, including emergency and lifesaving activities.

The ADS-B is far more sophisticated than the current air traffic control system and should help alleviate some of those challenges, according to NASA. Currently, planes use transponders to communicate with ground radar once every four to 12 seconds to determine an aircraft's position, velocity, and altitude.

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