Before you’ll see unmanned aircraft taking to the skies with any frequency, technology first must be developed so they fly safely and accident free.
The University of Iowa’s Operator Performance Laboratory (OPL) is working with Rockwell Collins to do just that: make it possible for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)—more commonly known as drones—to behave autonomously should they lose radio contact with their operators.
That means the UAS won’t collide or interfere with manned aircraft and will make it possible for manned and unmanned aircraft to coexist in the same airspace.
“In 2015, the work we have done with the OPL was mostly about getting Rockwell Collins the flying capability to safely and legally launch [UAS],” says Alex Postnikov, a researcher in the Advanced Technology Center at Rockwell Collins. “The next two to three years are going to be very exciting.
“So far, everything we’ve done is about how you physically control the aircraft, how you certify, how does it end up in the national air space?” he says. “That’s all great. But what if the aircraft needs to make a decision? What makes it autonomous is the ability to complete a flight safely when it doesn’t have all the information available before takeoff. It has to make decisions based on what happens in the real world, even when human help is not immediately available.”
The research and development is being conducted as the Federal Aviation Administration takes steps toward opening the national airspace to UAS, though a definite timeframe for when that will happen is unknown.
However, there are many possible commercial uses for UAS once that approval is granted.
Postnikov and Tom Schnell, director of the OPL, say UAS will be especially key in the areas of river and flood management, precision agriculture, large livestock operations and ranching, the railroad industry, and possibly even firefighting and law enforcement.
Next steps in the multi-year project between UI’s OPL and Rockwell Collins will include:
Developing technology to allow a UAS to detect and avoid other objects: “At the fundamental level, seeing and avoiding is done with human eyes,” Schnell says. “As long as you can see, you’re supposed to avoid.
“It needs to happen in such a way that UAS can blissfully coexist with manned aircraft. The ownership of the airspace needs to be shared and vehicles need to be capable of seeing and avoiding,” he says. “Fundamentally, that is the big thing.”
Developing a lightweight radio that will be FAA certified to fly in national airspace in unmanned mode: “There are no data links you can go and buy to do this,” Schnell says. “There are no such data links with the reliability and redundancy required.”
Rockwell Collins is working with government and industry partners to define a standard for such a radio and determining the frequencies necessary for that radio to operate. OPL and Rockwell Collins have been testing such radios over the last 18 months and will continue that work in the coming years.
“It needs to be a very small radio for this application but yet has to be certified by government agencies,” Schnell says.
Developing ground technology with enough bandwidth to allow for the proliferation of UAS communication: “There’s not enough bandwidth for everyone to use satellite communication to control UAS over a long distance, so it’s going to need to be more of a cellular-based system,” Schnell says, drawing a comparison to cell phones that use ground-based cells where frequencies can be reused if they’re far enough apart, “so that you don’t end up using one slot of bandwidth for each aircraft flying.”
The final step, about two years from now, will be testing technology for autonomous behavior: Autonomous behavior will enable a UAS to continue flying safely if it loses its data link. When pilots of manned aircraft lose communication, they follow certain protocols. UAS need to do the same. The technology will need to enable the aircraft to make a decision on its own, such as locating the nearest airport and landing or making an emergency landing without causing harm to people or property, Postnikov says.
“It would follow all of the established airman protocols that will lead to a safe outcome,” he adds.
Schnell says the complicated part about flying a UAS is giving it the ability to see and avoid in the absence of a human on the ground directing its path. And until that happens, UAS won’t be routinely allowed to fly in the same space as manned aircraft.
“It needs to play by all the rules we expect from a human aircraft operator,” Schnell says.
With FAA approval will come new business opportunities for Rockwell Collins as an enabler of safe UAS operations, Postnikov says.
“As the airspace continues to grow with both manned and unmanned vehicles, Rockwell Collins will be well positioned to provide solutions that ensure positive outcomes when things don’t go as planned,” he says.
And for OPL, the benefit is being involved in the development of new technology so staff and UI engineering students remain on the cutting edge. The 18-year relationship between Rockwell Collins and OPL also is invaluable, Schnell says.
“It’s the ongoing nature of the work that’s critical,” he says. “We deliver quality work to them, and hopefully sometimes we over-deliver.
“A lot of people talk about how it can be done and we’re doing it. That’s one of the great differentiators for our team.”