At a time when the drone industry is racing to develop the technology, regulatory framework, and standards to support its rapid expansion, Virginia is emerging as an incubator for both research and policy in the field.
Synergy between government and university initiatives has contributed to the state’s trailblazer status. A representative example: This year, funding from the Commonwealth of Virginia for a state-of-the art radar laid the groundwork for a research award of $1.6 million from NASA to the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership.
The project focuses on a key challenge for the industry: enabling unmanned aircraft, also known as UAS or drones, to detect and avoid other aircraft.
“Today, Virginia is a national leader in the unmanned systems industry thanks to our strategic investments and innovative leadership,” said Gov. Terry McAuliffe. “Years ago, we realized we had the talent, the expertise, and the infrastructure to propel this industry forward. When we say that that we’re leading the country in this technology, it isn’t rhetoric — it’s a fact, and investments like this one demonstrate that. The resources we’ve committed are advancing an industry that will create real opportunities for our citizens long into the future, ensuring our new Virginia economy remains diverse and resilient.”
One of the most pressing topics in the UAS industry is the growing demand for flights beyond the operator’s visual line of sight — virtually essential if drones are going to be used efficiently for certain applications, including infrastructure inspection, package delivery, and search-and-rescue.
But current federal regulations prohibit these flights, commonly abbreviated “BVLOS,” without a special waiver. That’s largely because unmanned aircraft don’t yet have a reliable way to detect other objects that may be occupying the same airspace, an FAA regulatory requirement.
“The key problem with flying beyond line of sight is being able to detect and avoid other aircraft,” said Mark Blanks, the director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership. The partnership, known as MAAP, runs one of seven Federal Aviation Administration-designated UAS test sites.
The pilot of a manned aircraft uses onboard instrumentation, or his own vision, to comply with the detect-and-avoid requirement.
“With manned aviation, even if the instruments aren’t functioning, you still have the pilot’s eyes,” said John Coggin, MAAP’s chief engineer. “Unmanned aircraft don’t have that backstop.”
Current workarounds — usually a series of observers on the ground or a chase plane in the air — are cumbersome and expensive.
One of the most promising alternatives is a ground-based radar that could detect both the drone and anything else in the airspace.
To explore that option, the Commonwealth of Virginia granted MAAP the funding to purchase a high-performance mobile radar system from Gryphon Sensors, which is state-of-the-art in commercially viable radar technology. The system combines radar with optical and spectrum sensors, providing multiple ways to detect aircraft and other objects..
"The Gryphon radar system enables the test site to offer even more capability to the UAS industry," Blanks said. "Companies pursuing BVLOS applications need access to the most advanced technology as well as the expertise and knowledge to conduct innovative operations safely. That's a combination we're uniquely well-positioned to provide, and we're thrilled that the state saw value in this investment."
The radar system, accurate enough to detect even small targets, became a key component of MAAP’s successful bid to win funding from NASA to test ground-based detect-and-avoid technology for unmanned aircraft.
The project’s goal is to develop a radar-based system that can detect other objects in the same airspace as an unmanned aircraft and alert the operator if necessary.
The research, which started this fall, focuses on detect-and-avoid technology for BVLOS flights in the context of pipeline and power-line inspections — both promising applications for UAS that routinely call for long-rage flights.
The test plan incorporates two radars on loan from Gryphon in addition to the state-funded system; two separate types of sensors will validate the radar data.
The testing will play out on a 5,000-square-mile unmanned-aircraft test range in central Virginia, a unique corridor set up to provide a safe environment for BVLOS research flights.
To execute the tests, which will involve a combination of real and simulated flight operations, MAAP is working with Aviation Systems Engineering Company, Dominion Energy, Firebird SE, Gryphon, Sunhillo Corp., Textron Systems, and UAVPro. MAAP will oversee the project and provide flight authorizations, test planning, and safety management.
The year-long project will give the MAAP team a comprehensive picture of the radar’s capabilities and performance. That will make it much more valuable for providing detect-and-avoid capability during future BVLOS research flights.
In addition — because a full solution to detect-and-avoid will likely involve a combination of technologies — the well-tested radar can be used to help evaluate other types of sensors.
The data gleaned from this project will contribute to the ongoing development of industry standards for radar performance. For example, for a system like this one to provide reliable detect-and-avoid capability for UAS, what size objects must it be able to detect? At what distance?
“This is brand new,” Coggin said. “No one has established requirements for this: that will establish what minimum standards a radar needs to meet to be considered a safe alternative to a pilot’s eyes.”
In other words, the investment in the radar will continue to yield dividends in Virginia and throughout the industry long after the NASA project is complete.
“The impact of this long-term is tremendous, and the support the state provided was instrumental in ensuring that this research would happen in Virginia,” Blanks said. “We’re breaking new boundaries and leading the state and the country in moving UAS integration forward. The state’s investment paid off.”