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UAVs fly in the Tularosa Basin

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in the Tularosa Basin aren't new. Planes without pilots have been flying in and out of Holloman Air Force Base for years as drones and aerial targets. 

What is new and quite phenomenal is the type of Unmanned Aircraft System testing being done here. These efforts are being led by a consortium of Southern New Mexico high-tech operations with the unsurprising name of Unmanned Aerial Systems Test and Evaluation Center. Holloman's 46th Test Group is its hub with Physical Science Laboratory at New Mexico State University and White Sand Missile Range playing key roles. 

The object of this UAS testing is to have an unmanned plane fly in regular commercial/general aviation airspace safely with the equivalent level of safety as a manned aircraft. The obvious military benefit is to be able to launch "pilotless" planes that are capable of performing the "dull, dangerous and dirty," jobs from intelligence gathering, border security, disaster response, search and rescue and possibly even transport while not affecting the level of safety or service for manned aircraft. 

There have been a number of close calls in the increasingly crowded skies over Iraq and Afghanistan as the 21st Century battlespace commanders strive to deconflict the manned and unmanned aircraft operations that have been integrated on the same airfield. Some of these close calls have involved unmanned platforms, which concern the pilots of manned aircraft because the UASs do not have a pair of human eyes in the aircraft that may provide a last line of defense to detect an intruder and initiate a maneuver to avoid a collision. The sensors that are on board the UAS can be used to scan for traffic in the skies, but there still is not a system in place that can replace a human in the aircraft as a last line of defense. 

A key technology that would keep all airborne vehicles safe would be a sense and avoid system on the UAS. The 46 TG's flight test squadron, the 586th has the lead for testing this technology for UASs. Providing test discipline and expertise is Mr. Ken Wernle who manages the Unmanned Systems Operation and Validation Program contract that the 46 TG has with PSL. He says, "Sense and avoid is one of the keys to being able to file a flight plan and fly in the National Airspace." 

Currently, UAVs are subject to strict FAA limitations and flying in restricted airspace, both of which limit their training and operational effectiveness in executing the broad scope of UAV missions. The airspace restrictions limit UAV test and training flexibility and further limit operational usability for locating forest fires or providing other surveillance of national disasters. 

The sense and avoid system that is being tested by PSL and the 586th can be installed on any UAV, large or small, to operate safely world wide. There are even thoughts that the "sense" portion of the system could be used by general aviation aircraft to alert pilots sooner than their eyes could, enhancing the pilot's situational awareness. 

Some of the first UTEC test flights were out of Stallion Army Air Field on the north end of WSMR restricted airspace. Initially, the UAS test payload was asked to look for an intruder approaching head-on. Test results have shown "better than the human eye" detection using special cameras and significant computer processing. Follow-on tests in late 2006 were flown with a simulated UAS with a "man" sitting at the controls as the aircraft autonomously avoided the intruder aircraft. This technology would not only assist unmanned aircraft but could assist all general aviation aircraft to increase their awareness of traffic in their vicinity and avoid accidents. Eventually, the goal is to progress to a completely autonomous "man out of the loop" system. 

Mr. Kevin Dunshee, 46 TG Plans and Programs Engineer and a former fighter pilot, says, "This technology will help the 21st Century battlespace commanders to easily, effectively and safely deconflict both manned and unmanned flight operations operating from the same Air Base." 

Flight operations in WSMR restricted airspace will resume with additional Unmanned Aerial Systems testing in December. These tests will concentrate on detection and sending information to the flight controls for completely autonomous operations where the UAV will detect an aircraft, evaluate whether it will travel close enough to be a concern, and then take its own evasive action to avoid a collision.