Unmanned “Unplugged”

Chuck Johnson, NASA

Chuck Johnson is the manager of NASA’s UAS in the NAS Project at Dryden Flight Research Center. He and his team are working to ensure that unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are safely integrated into the National Airspace System (NAS). NASA is at the forefront of UAS technology, using both large and small aircraft to do groundbreaking research on hurricanes, in the upper atmosphere and most recently, in the plume of a volcano. UnmannedUnplugged had the chance to catch up with Mr. Johnson and discuss his project and NASA’s latest research.

There has been some recent media coverage about your volcano research in Costa Rica. What has been the role of UAS in this?

Volcanic emissions impact the global climate in addition to presenting hazards for aviation. NASA is currently using UAS to aid in better understanding volcanic plumes by enabling measurements of sulfur dioxide within the plume and correlating those measurements with data collected by the ASTER (Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer) imager on NASA Terra. Manned aircraft are at risk from ash and turbulence when flying near volcanic plumes so these missions are well suited for unmanned aircraft. Future systems will enable sampling of ash particles which will improve our understanding of ash transport to improve safety in the airspace system.

What are the other goals of your UAS Integration in the National Airspace System (NAS) project?

The goal of the UAS Integration in the NAS Project is to eliminate or reduce barriers to access for civil/commercial UAS.  NASA is often charged with high risk research that leads to civil/commercial applications, and this project is an example of that.  We are conducted integrated testing – both simulations and flight testing – to demonstrate that UAS can be integrated safely into the National Airspace. This integration includes a system to detect and avoid other aircraft, securely communicate with air traffic controllers, and address human factors and concerns of the pilot/operator of the UAS.

How is NASA working with other government agencies and industry to address the challenges of UAS integration?

NASA is involved with the FAA, Department of Defense, and Department of Homeland Security through the UAS Executive Committee (ExCom) established under the National Defense Authorization Act in 2010. The ExCom provides a forum for public agencies to collaborate on expediting UAS access for missions related to national security and defense, emergency management, and science.  NASA is also involved in the UAS Advisory Rulemaking Committee (ARC) established by the FAA in 2011. The UAS ARC has a mix of government agencies and industry seeking to expand UAS access for civil/commercial operations.  The UAS ARC has developed recommendations for a comprehensive implementation plan which will lead to access for all classes of UAS and all segments of the airspace based on the performance characteristics of the unmanned systems. If it is embraced by the FAA, the implementation plan will provide the path for full integration into the NAS. The UAS integration in the NAS project is also working closely with other government agencies and industry to develop and validate the technologies necessary for access into the NAS. No single entity can solve all of the challenges to access, so the collaborative efforts across the community of interest are essential.

What do you see as the greatest benefits of UAS for the general public?

There are numerous uses of UAS which already benefit the general public.  UAS being used for national defense and security, emergency management, and science have been already been realized.  In addition, there is a civil/commercial industry waiting on the sidelines for access.  The potential civil/commercial operations include using UAS for pipeline management, cargo transport, and even personal and commercial transport.  We live in an “on demand” society, and there will certainly be a day when we will insist not only on autonomous automobiles, but autonomous air vehicles as well.  Until the airspace is opened up for safe, routine UAS access, these civil/commercial opportunities will remain inhibited.