NASA’s remotely-piloted Ikhana aircraft successfully flew its first mission in the National Airspace System without a safety chase aircraft last week. The agency says this “historic flight” moves the industry one step closer to normalising unmanned aircraft operations.

Flights of large craft like Ikhana have traditionally required a safety chase aircraft to follow the unmanned aircraft, as it travels through the same airspace used by commercial aircraft.

The FAA granted NASA special permission to conduct this flight under a Certificate of Waiver. The certificate permitted Ikhana’s pilot to rely on the latest ‘detect and avoid’ technology, enabling the remote pilot on the ground to see and avoid other aircraft during the flight.

Detect and avoid technologies

The Ikhana aircraft was equipped with detect and avoid technologies, including an airborne radar developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., a Honeywell traffic alert and collision avoidance system, a detect and avoid fusion tracker, and an automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast capability – a surveillance technology where the aircraft determines its position via satellite navigation and periodically broadcasts this information so other aircraft can track it.

The flight took off from Edwards Air Force Base in California and entered controlled air space almost immediately. Ikhana flew into the Class-A airspace, where commercial airliners fly, just west of Edwards at an altitude of about 20,000 feet. The aircraft then turned north toward Fresno, requiring air traffic control to be transferred from the Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center to the Oakland Air Route Traffic Control Center. On the return trip, the pilot headed south towards Victorville, California, requiring communication control to be transferred back to Los Angeles.

During the return flight, the pilot began a gentle descent over the city of Tehachapi, California, into Class E airspace – about 10,000 feet – where general aviation pilots fly. The pilot initiated an approach into Victorville airport at 5,000 feet, coordinating in real time with air traffic controllers at the airport. After successfully executing all of these milestones, the aircraft exited the public airspace and returned to its base at Armstrong.

This was thought to be the first remotely piloted aircraft to use airborne detect and avoid technology to meet the intent of the FAA’s “see and avoid” rules, with all test objectives successfully accomplished.

Opening new doors

NASA says the successful completion of test opens the doors to all types of services, from monitoring and fighting forest fires, to providing new emergency search and rescue operations.

“The technology in this aircraft could, at some point, be scaled down for use in other general aviation aircraft,” a NASA statement said.

Ed Waggoner, NASA’s Integrated Aviation Systems Program director, commented: “This is a huge milestone for our Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the National Airspace System project team. We worked closely with our Federal Aviation Administration colleagues for several months to ensure we met all their requirements to make this initial flight happen.”

Scott Howe, Armstrong test pilot, added: “We are flying with a suite of sophisticated technology that greatly enhances the safety capabilities of pilots flying large unmanned aircraft in the National Airspace System.”

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.