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Rockwell Collins and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has completed initial tests of a new communications system that eventually could enable unmanned aircraft or drones to operate safely in U.S. airspace.
The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2012, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama, orders the Federal Aviation Administration to develop regulations for the testing and licensing of commercial drones by 2015.
Rockwell Collins's data link waveform tests, part of the first of three research phases of the program, simulated communication between an aircraft and a ground-based pilot station. The test was conducted to verify the waveform's efficient and cooperative use of the radio spectrum to operate an unmanned aircraft.
Further testing of the system will occur this week on a NASA-owned Lockheed S-3 Viking aircraft at The Eastern Iowa Airport.
Dave Schreck, director of unmanned aircraft systems and control technologies for Rockwell Collins, said the tests are needed the drones can be safely employed for a variety of uses.
"There are a number of areas where the ability to safely operate unmanned systems in U.S. airspace will provide significant benefits, including public safety enhancements, agricultural solutions and other applications that are unforeseen today," Schreck said.
"However, we all agree that there are many considerations that must be thoroughly researched to allow the safe, efficient and routine operation of unmanned systems in the national airspace."
The project, which is co-funded by Rockwell Collins, is intended to develop an open, non-proprietary data link waveform that eventually will be released as a public resource. It will help the industry and the FAA develop a set of rules and requirements for reliable unmanned flight operations in the national airspace.
By some estimates, the commercial drone market in the United States could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars once the FAA clears their use. The agency has projected that 30,000 drones could be in the nation's skies by 2020.