Yesterday I had the honor of attending a test flight at the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center, Cape May, New Jersey. The flight is part of a program run by Dr. Michael Chumer at the New Jersey Institute of Technology that is researching how to use data-collection sensors on UAS for homeland security and emergency management functions. While NJIT is part of the Virginia Tech Test site’s Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), a group of over 50 institutions, they independently sought and obtained a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) from the FAA for this current program.
It took over a year for NJIT to obtain the COA, and it was clear from the moment I arrived that the COA had placed significant requirements on NJIT. One of my first posts was to explain why I use the term UAS, as opposed to drone or UAV. It was clear today that UAS is the proper term, because the aerial vehicle is just a small part of the overall system – the team estimated that the aircraft is only 20% of the overall system! Dr. Chumer introduced me to the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), housed in an RV and provided by Cape May County. There was also a flight center in a mobile military-style vehicle and this is where the pilot and other flight crew were based. EMT personnel were present and a number of members from an FAA research group who are helping to develop the R&D necessary to promulgate UAS regulations were present. I arrived 45 minutes before takeoff, and they were already well into busy flight preparations – this is not your fly out of the box DJI Phantom.
COA’s are only issued to public entities under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which provided some logistical hurdles. NJIT does not own the RS-16, the unmanned aircraft that flew yesterday. It was leased from its developer, American Aerospace, which as a private entity cannot obtain a COA. NJIT then also hired American Aerospace to provide the trained pilots necessary for the flight. The RS-16 is an gas-powered 85 lb aircraft with a 12 foot wingspan, 15,000 ft ceiling and 25 lb payload. It’s maximum speed is 65 knots, with a cruising speed of 55 knots and stall speed of 31 knots. The RS-16 is developed with civilian technology, which helps it avoid the ITAR issues surrounding military UAS (I do not know enough information to determine the ECCN, but this is sufficient to allow me to comfortably post images from the test flight).
UPDATE: I’ve been able to confirm that at least one internal component is Cat VIII on the ITAR. As for the rest of the system, I do not have enough information to make a determination.
Yesterday’s flight was limited to a ceiling of 3,000 ft and a range of 1 NM from the takeoff location. Except for the fact that there was no passenger compartment, one would have thought this was a manned flight. There were fully qualified pilots – one who was the Pilot-in-Command and two to act as ground observers. The pilot was in constant communication with Air Traffic Control, had filed NOTAM’s with the FAA to advise other aviators about the flight, and received clearance from ATC prior to take-off. The ground observers are necessary to comply with FAA “sense-and-avoid” requirement, which is the requirement that an aircraft have first-hand situational awareness of its environment and be able to avoid other aircraft. This is accomplished with UAS by either having ground observers who are trained pilots, that can have eyes on the aircraft even when the PIC is looking at his controls, or by having a “chase aircraft,” a manned aircraft with eyes on the UAS. For this flight, ground observers were sufficient, but the COA will eventually allow NJIT to fly up to 10,000 ft and out to 14.5NM over the Atlantic. At that point a chase aircraft will be necessary. It might seem odd that a UAS with 25 lbs of sensors needs human eyes on its surroundings, but until the FAA is satisfied that sensors can comply with sense-and-avoid requirements, this will be required.
Dr. Edward Mahoney, the Mayor of Cape May and Gerald Thornton, the Freeholder Director of Cape May County discussed the potential they see in UAS. They hope that UAS will help in disaster situations to aid people stranded and then to survey damage, such as if another Hurricane Sandy occurs, or to help ground personnel in more traditional emergencies such as those that fire and EMT personnel respond to. They heard numerous concerns from citizens about privacy issues as well, but assured residents that this is not being for the aforementioned research purposes and not as a police surveillance tool. They also hope that by leading the R&D effort they will attract UAS industry to southern New Jersey – a very astute and forward-thinking position and they would eventually like to open up a local airport for UAS operations. A number of people, including the FAA research group, had questions about the liabilities one might face for using a UAS. As you know, this is a long and complicated topic, and not the primary purpose of the test fight, but it was good to see that people were thinking about these issues.
Now for the flight, the exciting part. The RS-16 does not have wheels, and like many fixed wing UAS it is launched off of a catapult-looking device. The flight crew took a good amount of time testing it in the apparatus before flight, and started the propeller like in the old days (although now there is a device that helps spin it rather than the images of WWII crew doing it by hand). We all had to stand back behind a pre-determined point from the 15 minutes prior to take-off, a very strict requirement as part of the COA. The catapult launched it into the air for a successful take-off and the research began. It stayed within the predetermined area and we went into the EOC both to get warm and see the equipment that was receiving flight data. The computer has the capability to link via VPN to numerous emergency agencies and receives real-time data, including high-qualify imagery, from the RS-16. Two people from Avwatch were present with a mobile Dismount User Kit (DUK). It was designed for special forces units and looks like a bullet-proof vest with a mini iPad on it (it’s actually a Samsung). This device receives the same imagery as the computer alongside a map noting the location of the aircraft, the pilot, and the various DUK users. I have photos of this, but since it was designed for military purposes I’m concerned that it might be ITAR regulated and will refer you to their website.
After about 30 minutes in the air, the RS-16 came down for a landing. We all had to stand well back from the runway and were told to speak up if we say anything of concern. Remember that it doesn’t have wheels? It still doesn’t for landing. While David Yoel, the Founder and CEO of American Aerospace, had full faith in his pilot, he took a big sigh of relief when it skidded to a safe landing on its second pass – a brief gust of wind caught the wing on the first pass and the pilot wanted to be safe!
The whole team was excited about the successful flight and I wish them the best with their program.