R&D lags on integrating UAVs into U.S. airspace operations, GAO says

Drones may be used with increasing frequency for overseas military, intelligence and anti-terrorist activities, but U.S. airspace is still more than a decade away from being able to safely support flight by unmanned aerial systems.
The threat of command and control link jamming, GPS navigation signal spoofing, and system hacking is a real concern that will have to be addressed before any UAS integration into domestic airspace, said Rep. Paul Brown (R-Ga.), chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee subcommittee on oversight, during a Feb. 15 hearing
So far, though, work is getting off to a slow start, according to the Government Accountability Office. In a report (.pdf) presented by Gerald Dillingham, director of aviation issues, GAO said the FAA has missed several UAS integration-related deadlines outlined in the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act. Among them: establishment of six test ranges for UAS operations; development of safety, reliability and performance standards to guide safety research and development efforts; and utilization of operational data from the Defense Department and other sources.
The FAA is focusing its research on sense and avoid technology; control and communication, including potential communication security risks; maintenance and repair standards; and human factors, testified Karlin Toner, director of the FAA's Joint Planning and Development Office, which oversees development of the air traffic control modernization effort known as NextGen.
"We need to identify potential security features or mechanisms to protect UAS operations against threats, such as IT system threats, radio link threats, and human or physical threats," Toner said in written testimony (.pdf).
The FAA is working with NASA on prototype architecture for developing a security risk assessment and possible ways to protect air-ground communications, Toner said. She noted that the "NextGen UAS Research, Development and Demonstration Roadmap" (.pdf), published by JPDO in March 2012, details plans for R&D in communication; airspace operations; aircraft certification, navigation and mission management; and human systems integration, such as pilot and crew training and certification – an area now under study.
NASA is addressing technology challenges related to collision avoidance, communications, human systems integration and UAS certification requirements, testified Edgar Waggoner, director of NASA's Integrated Systems Research Program.
"Access to the NAS is hampered by challenges such as the lack of an on-board pilot to see and avoid other aircraft, the reliance on command and control (C2) communication frequencies used primarily by the military, and the wide variation in UAS size … and performance characteristics," Waggoner said in written testimony. (.pdf)
Among its research efforts, NASA is working with Rockwell Collins to develop a prototype control communication radio system for validating UAS communication system requirements on frequency bands already identified for UAS operations, Waggoner reported.
NASA also is working with the FAA the National Institute for Standards and Technology on ways to limit security vulnerabilities of the NAS control communication system, he said.
For more:
- go to the hearing webpage (prepared testimonies and webcast available)
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