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  • Charl Jooste

Crowded airspace drone flights safer thanks to Compact Radars from NASA and Partners

Image: sUAS News

Drone flights in an already crowded airspace have always been a challenge. Allowing the rapidly growing number of drones to safely fly while there are a host of other private and commercial aircraft is not an easy task. While the FAA has made a lot of progress, they have been helped by NASA.

NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has just completed the last stage of its program for drone testing. The aim was to find a safe and practical solution that will allow drones to operate in the crowded airspace. This testing was conducted together with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) as well as three of the largest players in the commercial drone industry.

The intention of the testing was to demonstrate the opportunities for various size drones in different areas and the various applications they can achieve.

The Echodyne system was one of the compact radars recently tested in partnership with NASA. This was done at the California-based NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center. They tested the AiRanger drone by American Aerospace Technologies. Bill Gates is one of the investors behind the Echodyne system.

The test involved a typical commercial flight which was a total aerial inspection of a pipeline. The exercise covered 14.5 miles of inspection. This is test is similar to most commercial drone operations so was a good example to test the system performance.

The Echodyne radar was used to detect and keep away from non-cooperative aircraft in the area's airspace. What makes this radar so effective is that unlike regular ESA or electronically scanned array radars, the Echodyne uses MESA or metamaterial electronically scanned array radars.

Not only do these perform better but they are less expensive. While performance is critical, the cost factor is extremely important.

Echodyne vice president of marketing, Leo McCloskey explains: “That’s our fundamental breakthrough. Autonomy is the future. Radar is the absolutely essential sensor you need in the array. We’re trying to establish what the rules are. We’re trying to create that safety package that would satisfy the FAA. All the big brands of the world are doing the same sort of dance…doing trials and experimenting with regulators. ”

The situational awareness is improved by the radar working in conjunction with the drone traffic management system from OneSky. This system integrates weather data, automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast, and the telemetry of the aircraft.

Senior project engineer, John Del Frate, NASA SIO, said: “This commercial UAS demonstration offers a glimpse of the future as UAS like the AiRanger routinely and cost-effectively perform pipeline patrol missions, which is vital to keeping our environment safe. With pipeline patrol typically occurring in remote locations, it’s a perfect starting point for UAS to gain the data and experience necessary for flight in more complex airspace.”

Partnerships such as these allow leading experts to collaborate to improve safety which allows for more freedom in the commercial drone industry.



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