Science and Technology News

Thursday, February 13, 2014

NASA taps Global Hawk pilots for 'Post Gen' research

by Dana Lineback
940th Wing Public Affairs


2/11/2014 - BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Pilots with remotely piloted aircraft experience don't exactly grow on trees - not yet anyway.

When the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's newest research project required unmanned aerial systems expertise, the federal agency turned to one of the only sources of RPA pilots in the nation, the RQ-4 Global Hawk mission here.

Over the past decade, NASA focused its aerospace research efforts on "Next Gen" air traffic management systems. "Next Gen" development is well underway now, according to Walter Johnson, a research psychologist with the Human Systems Integration Division at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif.

"We're now working on 'Post Gen' systems for single pilot operations, and that brings about brand new safety concerns to be researched," Johnson said.

NASA's latest research efforts are in support of the Federal Aviation Administration's congressionally mandated Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. The legislation requires the regulatory agency to address the safe and efficient integration of Unmanned Aerial Systems into the National Air Space.

The new single pilot operations research is leveraging NASA's ongoing project with UAS research. That's where Air Force pilots of remotely piloted aircraft enter the picture.

"There are a thousand good reasons for NASA's collaboration to include the military and for our pilots, both Reserve and Active Duty, to have a hand in this research," said Col. Paul Fast.
Fast, an Air Force reservist, is vice president of Flight Research Associates, Inc. As a NASA contractor, his company provides researchers, engineers, air traffic controllers and pilots in support of projects at the Ames Research Center.

"A significant thrust in 'Next Gen' research is in unmanned aircraft research. NASA's new project, researching UAS integration into National Air Space, is a five-year, $150 million research project to meet safe separation of aircraft, human-machine interface, communication spectrum utilization, and certification challenges," Fast said.

Fast, who commands the 701st Combat Operations Squadron, a reserve unit at March Air Reserve Base, Calif., was instrumental in connecting NASA researchers with RQ-4 pilots at Beale Air Force Base.

At his suggestion, a NASA research team visited Global Hawk operations at Beale in June 2013. The team toured the reconnaissance squadrons and training facilities and met with mission planners, operations supervisors, and schedulers, as well as an FAA liaison there.

"The Beale visit helped dispel the belief that the nature of commercial aviation has a different relationship with the Air Traffic Control system. While unmanned aircraft performance is different, in actuality, the human-systems capabilities need to blend. There's a critical overlap you must have," said Vernol Battiste, a research psychologist with the San Jose State University Foundation.

Students from that foundation are among the researchers working on the project through a cooperative agreement to provide grant-funded research support to NASA.

"Our students have advance degrees in human systems psychology, but no military experience. Military is a big part of the infrastructure the students need to understand as they tackle this research," Battiste said.

Battiste said the validity of NASA's research is dramatically increased by having Unmanned Aerial Vehicle pilots participate.

"There aren't any commercial UAV pilots, so we have to rely on availability of our military pilots. Nobody has the exact operational experience for (the single pilot system) we're developing, but these UAV pilots have the closest," he said. "Their inputs will have tremendous weight on this research because they're the ones with experience operating in this system."

In July 2013, fifteen RQ-4 pilots volunteered to participate in Human Systems Integration testing to assist researchers with determining the effects of different control inputs, as well as command and control latencies in a pilot's ability to respond to Air Traffic Control commands and various cockpit display alerts.

Col. John Trnka, 940th Wing vice commander, was one of the participants in the HSI testing. Trnka's input was of particular interest to the researchers. The reserve colonel is among the Air Force's first RPA pilots who had not previously flown a military aircraft.

"Military aviators have a common core of training which provides a good baseline. I think this would be very valuable to NASA for this kind of research," Trnka said. "Often, reservists who are military pilots have also flown many years with the airlines and general aviation. Perhaps this experience gives us the ability to look at issues from a broader perspective."

In January, three RQ-4 instructor pilots visited the Ames Research Center to provide input for sense and avoid displays under development. The displays were being fine-tuned for use in a future simulation that will involve additional volunteers from the RQ-4 pilot community at Beale.

"This simulation will provide critical data on how a pilot uses a sense-and-avoid system to remain safely separated from other aircraft," said Eric Mueller, a project engineer on the Separation Assurance/Sense and Avoid Interoperability team.

Mueller said the data gathered in the research will be used to establish UAS standards and requirements that will help the FAA meet its 2015 deadline to begin integrating UAS with the air traffic control system.

Aisha Bowe, an aerospace engineer in the Aviation Systems Division at the Ames Research Center, is involved in developing the trial displays. Bowe has worked five years on NASA's separation assurance project, spending the past 15 months on UAS sense and avoid research.

"This (collaboration) is a vital step in our research. Engineers rarely have the opportunity to get our algorithms in front of experienced pilots. Capturing their crucial input can be the most important, useful thing that happens all year," Bowe said.

"NASA's research project is a work in progress. RPA pilots' participation helps us understand the constraints of the UAS. Being able to tap their expertise has been incredibly valuable to our project," said Jay Shively, lead research engineer with the Human Systems Integration Division at the Ames Research Center. "We hope to continue our relationship with Beale."

"I was really amazed at the level of effort NASA engineers are putting into this project," said Lt. Col. Lewis Harding, 940th Wing Safety Officer and an RQ-4 instructor pilot with the reserve wing at Beale. "I feel like the future of aviation safety is in good hands."

Harding lent his expertise to the January evaluation session at the research center.

"It is not often that you have a chance in your career to make a difference in generations of future aviators. For me, I really believe this was that chance. I'm really grateful to have been able to contribute to the future of aviation safety in this way."

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