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,"
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
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
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
"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."