NASA, working with government and industry partners, is testing a system that would make it possible for unmanned aircraft to fly routine operations in United States airspace. The tests engage the core air traffic infrastructure and supporting software components through a live and virtual environment to demonstrate how an autonomous aircraft interacts with air traffic controllers and other air traffic.

NASA's Ikhana unmanned aircraft is being used to test a system that will allow uncrewed aircraft to fly routine operations within the National Airspace System. (NASA)

This series of tests is made up of two phases. The first is focused on validation of sensor, trajectory, and other simulation models using live data. Some of the tests will be flown with an Ikhana aircraft, based at Armstrong Flight Research Center that has been equipped with an updated sense-and-avoid system. Other tests will involve an S-3B plane from NASA’s Glenn Research Center serving as a high-speed piloted surrogate aircraft.

Both tests will use other aircraft following scripted flight paths to intrude on the flight path the autonomous craft is flying, prompting it to either issue an alert or maneuver out of the other aircraft’s path. These flights will also conduct the first full test of an automatic collision avoidance capability on autonomous aircraft.