NASA Wants To Prove Predator Drones Can Play Nice With Airliners

Early next year, NASA plans to begin flying a Predator drone over the California desert at the Armstrong Flight Research Center along with two manned aircraft, which will intrude into the Predator's airspace.

"The idea is to try and figure out whether or not the algorithms that are part of the system are able to tell the pilot when to turn in advance of something that could introduce a safety risk," Said NASA's senior advisor for unmanned and autonomous systems, Chuck Johnson. "You want to test the boundaries of that." Gee, ya think?

Predator strike drone [Getty Images]

Bloomberg says NASA wants to prove it's safe to fly the big drones above 18,000 feet, letting them mingle in the same airspace as airliners and general aviation aircraft. The MQ-9 Predator B that will be used by NASA has a 66-foot wingspan, putting it about the same size as some private and commuter jets out there. Originally used as a surveillance platform, the Predator's capabilities have evolved to include air-to-ground missile strikes.

In March, a much smaller hobby drone nearly collided with a U.S. Airways plane in Tallahassee, Florida. The tests being done by NASA will collect data on the Predator's sense-and-avoid capabilities. The tests will conclude in 2016, by which time the FAA will have announced official rules for drone operation within commercial airspace. NASA hopes that drones will be able to share the skies with airliners by 2018.


Top image by the National Guard [Flickr / Creative Commons Commercial Use]

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