Rockwell, NASA test new drone technology

Enables towers to control multiple aircraft

(REUTERS/AAI Corporation/Handout)
(REUTERS/AAI Corporation/Handout)

With the approaching potential for numerous unmanned aircraft systems or drones flying over communities, Rockwell Collins and NASA are working on technology to assure their safe operation.

Rockwell Collins and NASA this week have been testing the ability of an unmanned aircraft to “hand off” communications from one tower to another. That will ensure a drone flight will be managed by a tower that tracks its location at all times and can transfer control to another tower.

A second test of the same communications link will enable a single tower to control up to 20 unmanned aircraft.

Rockwell Collins and NASA have been conducting the tests over several days at The Eastern Iowa Airport using a NASA-owned Lockheed S-3 Viking and the University of Iowa Operator Performance Laboratory’s Beechcraft Bonanza as drone surrogates.

Alex Postnikov, principal engineering manager with Rockwell Collins’ Advanced Technology Center, said the rapid development of drones for civilian use is creating pressure to develop technology that will assure safe operation in the nation’s airspace.

“We need to be able to communicate with the aircraft,” Postnikov said. “Flight management systems for unmanned aircraft do not exist today and we are figuring out how to have part of the system on the aircraft and part of it on the ground for control.”

Postnikov said detection and avoidance technology also is needed for drone operation.

“Unmanned aircraft need to be equipped with various technologies to sense the environment around them,” he said.

Rockwell Collins’ Advanced Technology Center is working on a scanning system that can perform that task. He said the technology has existed for years but has been too costly.