Imagine an aircraft without a pilot flying alongside a commercial airliner that’s carting passengers to their summer vacation destinations. Instead, the pilot of the aircraft is stationed in a separate location and controls the aircraft remotely.
Unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS as they are commonly called within the Federal Aviation Administration, have been primarily used in overseas combat, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. They can weigh between 6 ounces and 38,000 pounds.
Domestically, however, dozens of other applications have been discussed.
Some people envision these systems one day delivering mail to back porches. Others say unmanned systems could act as a border patrol or could be used for crop dusting and environmental science observations.
A team at the FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township is charged with figuring out how these unmanned systems can one day coexist in the same airspace as commercial jetliners and other aircraft. The potential size of the industry is massive. Experts project that $90 billion will be invested in unmanned aircraft during the next 10 years.
With research rapidly advancing at the tech center and strong federal support for the integration of NextGen Air Transportation Systems and a related research park, some say South Jersey could one day be a hub for the UAS industry.
Xiaogong Lee, 56, manages the FAA’s advanced aircraft systems and avionics team at the tech center.
The team of about 20 FAA engineers, computer scientists and aerospace engineers has been working on integration issues since 2007, and support for its work is growing, he said.
The team works with industry partners from other government agencies, including NASA.
Major aeronautical companies, including General Atomics, AAI and GE, also use a combination of laboratory modeling and actual flight testing to examine concepts.
“There are a number of potential problems that have to be solved before UAS can safely be integrated into the National Airspace System. The tech center is the only place to have the type of capabilities to address these problems,” Lee said. “We have to not only look at today’s problems but also consider how these systems could operate in the future with constantly evolving NextGen concepts.”
Much of the laboratory testing is completed using the FAA’s NextGen Integration and Evaluation Capability lab at the tech center, which houses a simulated air traffic control tower and cockpit simulator. UAS can fly in the National Airspace System under FAA waivers, with most of the operations using restricted airspace, meaning they are segregated from other air traffic such as commercial jets.
The nearest restricted airspace to the tech center is the Warren Grove Gunnery Range, located 20 miles north of the tech center. The range is owned and operated by the New Jersey Air National Guard.
Through a research agreement established last year with Insitu, a subsidiary of Boeing, Lee’s team completed testing at the range with the ScanEagle, a 45-pound UAS that can fly for more than 24 hours at one time.
Paula Nouragas, the team’s manager of engineering development services, said the agreement is unique and has been a significant step forward in the team’s research.
“We’ve done testing all over the country, even with UAS as large as the Predator in Cape Canaveral,” Nouragas said. “The agreement with the Air National Guard gives us access to fly the ScanEagle and support our research objectives. At some point simulation can only take you so far and you get to a point where you have to take it into the real situation.”
The work being done at the tech center could be extremely relevant to South Jersey’s economy. Educational institutions, airports, the tech center and the NextGen Aviation Research and Technology Park that is planned on the tech center’s grounds make the region an obvious place for the industry to take hold said Gordon Dahl, executive director of the South Jersey Economic Development District.
“We see tremendous potential, not only in unmanned aeriel systems, but in unmanned ground systems as well,” Dahl said. “The applications of this technology are just incredible. We could really build a competitive advantage in this area.”
According to a study commissioned by the SJEDD in September 2010, educational factors in the region would make the area ideal for expanding the UAS industry. Atlantic Cape Community College, for instance, is developing air traffic control and aviation studies programs.
Earlier this month, the SJEDD applied for a $1.65 million federal grant that would advance the development of unmanned aircraft in the region. In part, the grant would help the agency collaborate with educational institutions to develop a curriculum for local high schools, community colleges and four-year colleges for those interested in careers related to unmanned aircraft.
Rose Mooney, director of engineering for Hunt Valley, Md.-based, AAI Corp., which designs UAS, said the technology has many applications, but the public often lacks a full understanding of the tasks an unmanned aircraft could perform.
“People come to us as if we’re going to bomb their houses or peak in their windows,” Mooney said. “Whenever new technology comes, it’s always difficult to move forward.”
The ultimate goal is for UAS to be integrated with manned aircraft and have unrestricted access to the National Airspace System, but just how long that could take remains unclear. Lee and his team would not speculate as to when that step might occur.
Even at the recent Air Traffic Control Association symposium at Resorts Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, top industry experts could not agree. Some speculated it could happen as soon as 2025, and others would not even speculate as to a date, only saying integration will not happen until the FAA can be absolutely certain UAS can operate safely alongside other aircraft.
Paul McDuffee, vice president of commercial business development for Insitu, said the fact that a discussion about integration even took place in public is a huge step forward. It means the UAS is gaining greater support, he said.
“You’re going to see more and more integration into the airspace sooner rather than later. That we can say for certain,” McDuffee said.
Contact Jennifer Bogdan