Flying the Friendly Skies: Merging UAS into Civil Airspace

March 2011
Topics: Air Traffic Management, Airspace, Civil Aviation Security, Unmanned Systems, Collaborations
As our national airspace prepares for the arrival of unmanned aircraft systems, a MITRE team representing numerous government sponsors is helping to roll out the welcome mat.

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) have transformed modern warfare and are expected to have a similar transformational impact as they are routinely integrated into our national airspace. A wide range of civilian applications are envisioned for UAS (also commonly referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles, remotely piloted aircraft, and other names), including border patrol, crop dusting, cargo delivery, traffic reports, weather forecasting, and a long list of other potential applications. Some of these UAS will be as big as a Boeing 737 and others will be launched by hand.

Several questions face the Federal Aviation Administration: How will UAS be integrated safely into our national airspace? How airworthy must the UAS be? How will the safety of people on the ground be ensured? What's the best way to provide air traffic control? And how can the risk of mid-air collisions be mitigated?

The introduction of UAS into the national airspace is part of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), which is a multi-agency government program tasked with transforming the U.S. National Airspace System to meet the nation's future aviation needs. In addition to the FAA, the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security play critical roles in NextGen. MITRE works closely with each of these government organizations.

Different Cultures

Since September 2009, a team of MITRE experts from across the company has been working under the auspices of a special corporate team to better align MITRE's work with sponsors to introduce UAS into civilian airspace.

"We have strong relationships with the FAA, DoD, and DHS," says Tim Szczerbinski, executive director of MITRE's Enterprise Integration division and member of the UAS Leadership Edge team. "If there's one area that requires you to be able to think 'big enterprise,' it's UAS."


In addition to Szczerbinski and others from MITRE's DoD FFRDC, the team includes members from our DHS and FAA FFRDCs as well. "We come from different sponsor bases, and we have different customer expectations, and clearly different organizational cultures," Szczerbinski says. "However, we all have the same desired outcome—to get UAS to fly safely and routinely in the national airspace."

Differences in Vocabulary

The UAS Leadership Edge team began by working with the DoD and the DHS to identify each agency's priority needs for routine operation of UAS in civilian airspace. Next, they approached the FAA to discuss the development of a roadmap for defining and achieving acceptable UAS capability.

"Our customers would often state the same issues and concerns, but they'd use different words, or use them only in the context of their environments," says John Kreger, chief systems engineer for the Homeland Security Systems Engineering and Development Institute, which MITRE operates on behalf of DHS. "We're trying to get over that— overcome the differences in vocabulary and start to identify the common issues and concerns people have about UAS operation."


"What we did, basically, was listen to what they were saying and then figure out a way forward incorporating their concerns," says Szczerbinski. "That diversity of thought and sponsor bases was initially perceived to be an impediment, but it actually was what made us successful."

Now, when Kreger speaks to his DHS customers about UAS, he doesn't come alone. If a DHS official has a question about the FAA views on UAS, Kreger can refer that query to Dave Hamrick, an executive director in MITRE's FAA FFRDC and a Leadership Edge team member.

Sense-and-Avoid Simulation

Last June, the team invited DoD and FAA officials to McLean to view a realistic simulation of the use of ground-based sense-and-avoid radar systems to manage UAS. This radar technology offers the potential of producing air traffic data that can be passed on to UAS pilots so they can avoid other aircraft.

"This simulation enabled these groups to start talking," says Chris Jella, a senior principal multi-discipline systems engineer. "It also enabled MITRE to be a focal point for folks to get together to start discussing the various issues."

Szczerbinski agrees. "The participants in the simulation were energized by it," he says. "I think they began to see what we were trying to do. People came to me after and said that if there was anything they could do to help us out, they would be honored to do it again."

After watching this demo, Air Force Major General Marke Gibson invited FAA and MITRE leaders to Creech Air Force Base in Nevada to see how the military manages UAS in the skies over Afghanistan. MITRE has worked closely with the Air Force at Creech to improve these operations.

Another experiment—the Limited Deployment-Cooperative Airspace Project (LD-CAP)—is scheduled for 2012. LD-CAP is a research initiative to create an experimental environment to evaluate the viability of a cooperative, autonomous sense-and-avoid capability for UAS. The project will focus on what could be done if all aircraft in a particular airspace can transmit their positions to UAS pilots, and what those pilots can do to fly UAS safely.

The goal of LD-CAP is to inform policy discussions by producing operational and technical data from evaluations in a live operational setting. The project will be capped with experiments in North Dakota to evaluate cooperative sense-and- avoid capabilities. "We've been on our internal roadmap for over a year, and so far, we've hit every mark," says Szczerbinski. "There's been many a speed bump, but we've been very focused on the overarching sponsor outcome, and we believe that it's in the nation's interest that we get this technology out there.

"People talk about MITRE speaking with one voice. We think it's even more important that MITRE listen with 'one ear'—to hear what our customers and sponsors are saying and drive toward a common outcome. Everything else becomes details and tactics."

—by Russell Woolard


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