TAMU-CC Lone Star UAS Center Testes New UAS Technology to Improve Sky Safety



Responding to the increase in Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) taking to the skies, the Lone Star UAS Center of Excellence and Innovation at Texas & M University-Corpus Christi (LSUASC), NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and test sites around the nation come together May 15 through June 9 to conduct a series of test flights which will provide valuable insight into how UAS work and operate in low-altitude airspace.

LSUASC successfully conducted several test flights over the course of three days beginning on June 5 and running through June 8 at The Charles R. Johnson Airport located in Port Mansfield, TX. During a special media demonstration, LSUASC performed a test flight in which three UAS flew together in the same airspace over a simulated “capsized boat” in the Laguna Madre. An AR 180, provided by LSUASC commercial partner AirRobot, was outfitted with a new MESA-DAA airborne sense-and-avoid radar. Created by LSUASC commercial partner, Echodyne, the new radar was tested for use with small UAS. This innovative airborne radar will enable beyond visual line-of-sight flight for many applications, including package delivery, infrastructure inspection and, in this demonstration, public safety.

LSUASC team members considered the event “a momentous occasion” as this was the first time in the evolution of UAS history a small UAS on-board radar was able to detect boat traffic in a major waterway along with small UAS traffic flying in the area.

“Echodyne’s airborne detect-and-avoid radar is made especially for small to medium UAS and enables safe beyond visual-line-of-site operations – in all environments and conditions,” said Jerry Hendrix, Executive Director for the LSUASC. “Before the MESA-DAA became commercially available, there were no options for long-range radar on small to medium commercial drones.”

Another purpose of the test flights was to provide NASA with data to improve beyond visual-line-of-site technology and first-responder priority operations.

“Radar is an ideal sensor technology for all sorts of scanning and imaging applications, especially when environmental conditions are less than ideal,” explained Thomas Driscoll, Chief Technology Officer for Echodyne. “Our radar thrives over other sensors in unpredictable weather conditions, can rapidly scan a broad field of view, can track Cessna-sized targets at distances greater than two kilometers, and dramatically increases situational awareness for UAS operators.”

The need for new rules and regulations in low-altitude airspace led to the creation of the Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management Plan (UTM), which consists of a series of activities called, “Technology Capability Levels (TCL),” with each level increasing in complexity. The testing of the new radar was a part of NASA’s TCL 2, a national campaign focusing on flying small, remotely-operated aircraft beyond the pilot’s line-of-sight in sparsely populated areas to demonstrate, evaluate, and refine functional designs and UTM technology prototypes.

“There is a growing demand for the commercial applications of drones in our airspace,” said Jeffrey Homola, Researcher in the Airspace Operations Laboratory at NASA Ames Research Center. “There are programs in place for drones operating in the low altitude airspace, but we continue conducting research to extend the use of drones beyond their current limitations, such as operating within visual line-of-site. This research will enable beyond line-of-sight, altitude and stratified operations of drones operating in the same airspace.”

The next step in the UTM research initiative, TCL 3, will use results gathered from the TCL 2 test flights to then focus on testing technologies that maintain safe spacing between responsive and non-responsive UAS over moderately populated areas. During phase one of the UTM research initiative, LSUASC conducted a multi-site test of NASA’s UTM research program in 2016.

The following NASA, FAA test site managers and representatives from participating UAS commercial partners attended the demonstrations to provide their support and expertise:

Jerry Hendrix, LSUASC Executive Director;
Chief David Mayes, Port Mansfield Police Chief;
Jeffrey Homola, Researcher in the Airspace Operations Laboratory at NASA Ames Research Center;
Thomas Meyer, President of AirRobot;
Thomas Driscoll, Chief Technology Officer for Echodyne;
Ronald D. Mills, Port Mansfield Port Director, USCG Retired.

With more UAS becoming available to hobbyists and available for commercial use, the research data and testing conducted by LSUASC, NASA and the FAA will ensure that large-scale UAS low-altitude operations are integrated into the national airspace safely.

Texas & M-Corpus Christi maintains its status as one of only seven FAA test sites in the nation selected to facilitate testing and research on UAS. Through LSUASC efforts, the Island University provides safety and security to America’s skies by serving as a National Credentialing Center, serving industries like oil and gas, providing infrastructure inspection, assisting in port development, precision agriculture, disaster response, security and more.

For more information on the Lone Star UAS Center of Excellence, visit http://lsuasc.tamucc.edu/.

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