An autonomous detect-and-avoid technology has been successfully tested using DJI Phantom 4 drones in yet another important step toward a world with integrated airspace.
The news came in a news release that stated: “Vigilant Aerospace has completed successful beyond line-of-sight flight testing of its new FlightHorizon detect-and-avoid collision avoidance system for unmanned aircraft at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California.”
The exercise was meant to test the effectiveness of the technology in Beyond Line-of-Sight flights with small and medium-sized unmanned aircraft. The eventual end-game is the integration of unmanned aerial vehicles with manned aerial vehicles in the same airspace.
The flights included nearly 100 “scripted encounters” – where the drones were put on conflicting flight paths. These exercises tested many aspects of the technology, but the real emphasis was on its detect-and-avoid algorithms, along with the user interface.
“The system successfully detected and tracked intruder aircraft and provided traffic alerts and collision warnings on 100% of air traffic during the encounters.”
Any evasive actions weren’t, however, fully autonomous. According to the release, the system warned the human operators of a potential conflict in the flight paths – “allowing the drone pilots to avoid collisions between the aircraft.” However, the software does instruct the pilot on the appropriate evasive manoeuvre.
But, significantly, the scenarios were beyond the visual line of sight. Those flights, say the release, “simulated real-world scenarios in which visual detection of approaching aircraft by ground-based unmanned pilots might not be possible due to distance, weather, altitude and speed.”
These weren’t just simple tests. The FAA’s senior UAV regulator was on hand to observe, as was an FCC observer whose task was to monitor radio transmissions.
Vigilant Aerospace has a significant interest in this project. The company has licensed the NASA patent and software. It has put that together into a product it calls FlightHorizon:
The Vigilant website states: “Our avionics software platform, FlightHorizon™, is based on an exclusively licensed NASA patent and provides situational awareness, synthetic cockpit views, collision avoidance and other flight information to enable integration of UAS into the national airspace.”
Several companies are working, both collaboratively and competitively, to be first to market with a system that will allow unmanned aircraft to share the space with manned aircraft. Detect-and-avoid technology will feature prominently, and some predict the ultimate solution will automatically program and implement a new course in order to divert from any potential collision.
Though there is no clear date for airspace integration, it seems there’s a decent chance it will occur in 2020 – the same year the FAA has mandated that all manned aircraft flying in the US (regardless of airspace) must be equipped with ADS-B transponders.