Communications experts have begun flight testing a prototype radio as part of the agency's contributions toward fully integrating civil and commercial Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System (NAS). This particular radio is one of the first steps to provide the critical communications link for UAS pilots on the ground to safely and securely operate their remotely piloted vehicles in flight even though they are many miles ? if not continents or oceans ? apart. "So far the tests are going well and we're learning a lot about how this prototype radio operates under various conditions,
but we still have much more testing to do on this radio and others that will come," said Jim Griner, a project engineer at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. Currently there is not a great deal of freedom for civilian uses of UAS over our nation's skies. Police and firefighters, for example, must use off-the-shelf systems and fly under special Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approvals that restrict where and when remotely piloted vehicles can fly. "There are some pretty good limitations on those operations, but the work we're doing to develop a new command and control radio for the UAS to use will help go beyond that," Griner said. Built under a cooperative agreement between NASA and Rockwell Collins in Iowa, the current prototype radio is a platform to test operations at certain frequencies with specific radio waveforms that are unique to its particular task ? in this case command and control of a remotely piloted vehicle. Once testing concludes on the initial prototype, lessons learned will be applied to a second generation test radio, which is now scheduled to be delivered to NASA in September. Additional testing will follow, after which a final prototype design is to be delivered and tested in the 2015-2016 timeframe. Ultimately the FAA will define the final requirements that will lead to certification of a UAS command and control radio for use in the NAS, but by building and testing prototype units now NASA is helping move the process along. "Usually the requirements are defined first and then we try to build equipment based on those requirements. This short-circuits a number of years off the traditional process," Griner said. The prototype radio was delivered to NASA Glenn on Feb. 28 and successfully put through its paces on a laboratory test bench. Flight tests in a NASA S-3 Viking twin-engine jet began in May and are expected to continue in June.