Operating Unmanned Aircraft Systems in 2018 and Beyond: NextGen Challenges and Opportunities

Joint Planning and Development Office

January 04, 2011

The integration of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System (NAS) is an integral part of the planning and implementation of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), the multi-disciplinary effort that will offer a host of air transportation operational, technical, economic, and environmental advantages. Ultimately, NextGen will help the US achieve gains in efficiency and capacity for all users of the NAS.

UAS is generally defined as a system whose components include the necessary equipment, communication links, and personnel to control and employ an unmanned aircraft. The UAS is composed of six elements: the UA element, communications element, control element, support element, human element, and payload element.

UAS already play a unique role in the safety and security of many US military and civil missions, such as border surveillance, monitoring oil pipelines, and local law enforcement. They have evolved from simple drones and basic models to large sophisticated aircraft.

In 2010, UAS access to the NAS, especially for commercial operations, remains restricted due to a lack of appropriate operational procedures, standards, and policies, because the NAS is tailored to accommodate manned aircraft. UAS operate solely under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) and in segregated airspace. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allows UAS operations on a case-by-case basis. They are treated as aircraft and are required to comply with current Part 91 aircraft operating rules.

Due to the diverse utility that UAS offer, their use will increase exponentially in a variety of key military and civil areas. Industry projections for 2018 forecast more than 15,000 UAS in service in the U.S., with a total of almost 30,000 deployed worldwide [World Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems, Market Profile and Forecast 2009-2010; The Teal Group]. From an operational, infrastructure, and safety perspective, this presents a number of challenges, the solutions to which will involve and impact all NAS constituencies, but ultimately enable a seamless integration of UAS into the NAS.

In designing NextGen and planning for a substantial increase in the use of UAS, the FAA considers the most important technical challenge to be developing a safe and efficient way that they can operate in the same airspace as crewed aircraft without creating a hazard either to other aircraft or other objects on the ground. UAS also may not have the ability to respond to Air Traffic Control (ATC)-issued instructions as quickly as manned aircraft. In addition to communications latency, there is the possibility of a total loss of communications. Although current FAA plans for the mid-term dictate that UAS will operate under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) in Class A, B, and E airspace, plans for the long-term -- beyond 2018 -- specify that they will operate in the NAS using "electronic" IFR.

Role of the JPDO

In 2003, Congress established the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) under the VISION 100 – Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act (Public Law 108-176) [ http://www.jpdo.gov/vision_100_law.asp ] to plan and develop NextGen in collaboration with its government partners, which include the Departments of Transportation, Defense, Homeland Security, and Commerce, as well as the FAA, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and industry.

Research and Development Workshop

As part of this initiative, and because UAS will continue to play an increasingly significant role in the future NAS, the JPDO and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) recently sponsored a UAS research and development (R&D) workshop in Dayton, Ohio. The workshop brought together government subject matter experts and executives to focus on critical and cross-cutting long-term research and development issues. These include air vehicle technologies, human factors, ground-control stations, communications, and sense and avoid—all associated with UAS flying with manned aircraft in a future NextGen trajectory-based operations (TBO) airspace.

The workshop explored the potential of the UAS mission, together with the R&D capabilities and plans of the organizations involved in NextGen. In addition, the JPDO Director Dr. Karlin Toner in her keynote address stated that the JPDO remains committed to developing the requisite strategy for joint coordination, collaboration, and execution of the long-term R&D activities in support of UAS integration into the NAS as part of NextGen, based on current and future opportunities.

JPDO and AFRL established three objectives for the workshop. The first was to identify the set of technical issues that must be resolved in order to ensure safe and consistent UAS operations in NextGen airspace. The second objective was to catalog current R&D activities by each represented government agency and identify gaps not currently being addressed. The third objective was to identify areas where joint demonstrations can advance progress toward UAS integration more effectively than single-agency efforts.

The workshop was divided into three technical tracks: Air Vehicles; Sense and Avoid and Communications; and Human Factors and Ground Control Station. The track teams focused their efforts on supporting R&D requirements for 2018 and beyond in order to achieve UAS integration and operations into NextGen airspace.

Air Vehicles

The Air Vehicles track focused on developing the on-board technology R&D needed to enable semi-autonomous UAS to operate safely in controlled airspace and populated areas. The Air Vehicles participants identified several long-term priorities:

Additional discussions produced priorities to better identify which agency is working which problem and where there may be gaps in R&D. These included self-situational awareness and environmental effects; UAS design, certification and incremental certification; and integrity and fault tolerance, including realtime re-planning.The Air Vehicles track identified potential collaboration opportunities for certain areas, such as vehicle health (status condition, reporting, and operational capability) and certification of avionics and control (predictive systems).

Sense and Avoid Communications

The essential focus of the Sense and Avoid/Communications track was the requirement to construct a framework that can bridge the current practice of see and avoid to NextGen-appropriate paradigms that reflect and leverage the operational differences between a manned and a remotely operated aircraft. Some of the key gaps identified include the sense and avoid safety case—the need for flight-test data, airspace encounter modeling and simulation, and a definition of the criteria for safety—ATC command and control (C2) communications, and NextGen data communications.

Human Factors and Ground Control Station

The Human Factors and Ground Control Station track concentrated on developing pilot qualifications, levels of automation, communication latency, contingency management, ground control station information display, navigation system compatibility, and the fact that the pilot is spatially separated from the UAS. All of these will need to be enhanced for improved safety and affordability. Specific issues identified included:

Cross-cutting Long Term Issues

Each of the groups identified long-term R&D priorities—key questions that need to be answered—for effective UAS integration into the NAS.

Participants in the workshop also raised the issue of FAA UAS certification standards. The primary customer for UAS in the U.S. is currently the Department of Defense (DOD), which does not require FAA certification prior to deployment of a UAS. There are presently two acceptable means of operating UAS in the NAS outside of restricted airspace: a Special Airworthiness Certificate – Experimental Category, or a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA). However, as more UAS applications are established, certification standards will need to be more fully developed. Developing and implementing new UAS standards and guidance is a necessary effort for getting the UAS certified to operate in the NAS.

An additional challenge was the need to create sufficient situational awareness so that the UAS, pilots, other aircraft, and ATC know where UAS are at all times. The FAA has already established air traffic procedures for UAS operations in the airspace surrounding the southern U.S. border, under control of the Albuquerque Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC). As UAS are granted increased access to the NAS, these procedures will continue to evolve.


Full integration of UAS into NextGen where "file and fly"— the ability to fly in four- dimensional trajectory-based airspace and predict the aircraft’s flight path in terms of spatial position and times along points in its path—remains a long-term goal of the JPDO. However, the technologies, procedures, standards, and policies must be in place to ensure safe and consistent UAS operations throughout the NAS.

Copyright 2011