Ikhana: Why NASA Has Just Flown a Huge Unmanned Aircraft Into Public Airspace

NASA has said the U.S. is “one step closer to normalizing unmanned aircraft operations” in commercial airspace after its remotely piloted drone aircraft—known as Ikhana—successfully flew its first mission in the skies above California without a chase aircraft for the first time this week on June 12. 

According to the American space agency, the success of the flight could now open the doors to a slew of future uses, from monitoring and fighting forest fires to emergency search and rescue operations. It also claimed that the tech could soon be scaled down for use in general aviation.

Ikhana is part of an ongoing project called the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the National Airspace System, or UAS-NAS. Engineers are developing new technology that will make it possible for large drones to have access to airspace typically occupied by human-piloted planes. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had to grant NASA special permission to conduct its latest test flight.

“This is a huge milestone for our Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the National Airspace System project team,” said Ed Waggoner, NASA’s Integrated Aviation Systems Program director, in a Tuesday press release. “We worked closely with our Federal Aviation Administration colleagues for several months to ensure we met all their requirements to make this initial flight happen,” he added.

Ikhana, which according to NASA’s website is a modified MQ-9 Predator B unmanned aircraft system (UAS), was acquired in 2006 to “support Earth science missions and advanced aeronautical technology development.” The craft, the agency says, has a wingspan of 66 feet and is 36 feet long. Before this week, flights of large aircraft such as Ikhana needed to be accompanied by a chase aircraft for safety.

The certificate granted by the FAA in March permitted Ikhana’s pilot to rely on the latest detect-and-avoid technologies. On Tuesday, the drone was equipped with an Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast capability, technology with which the aircraft determines its position via satellite navigation.

“We are flying with a suite of sophisticated technology that greatly enhances the safety capabilities of pilots flying large unmanned aircraft in the National Airspace System,” said test pilot Scott Howe. “We took the time to mitigate the risks and to ensure that we, as a program, were prepared for this flight.”

The flight took off from Edwards Air Force Base in California. The agency said Ikhana flew into Class-A airspace, where commercial airliners fly, at an altitude of about 20,000 feet. After executing its mission, the aircraft exited the public airspace and returned to its base at Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California.

NASA2 NASA’s remotely piloted Ikhana aircraft, based at the agency’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, in Edwards, California, is flown in preparation for its first mission in public airspace without a safety chase aircraft. NASA/Carla Thomas

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