April 29, 2013
PARIS — The European Space Agency (ESA) and European Defense Agency (EDA) demonstrated a Heron 1 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in civil airspace April 24 from San Javier Air Base in Murcia, Spain.
The joint exercise is a key element of the €1.2 million ($1.5 million) DeSIRE project, funded equally by ESA and EDA and carried out by an international industry consortium led by Indra of Spain. It includes AT-One of Germany and the Netherlands; satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg; Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy; and CIRA of Italy.
The test flight demonstrated the ability of a UAV to share the sky with a conventionally piloted aircraft through communications via satellite. The trial is the culmination of a series of test flights DeSIRE has undertaken to demo the role of satellite communications for integrating remotely piloted aircraft in civil and military airspace through beyond-line-of-sight communications. In particular, the test flight provided a generic terrestrial and maritime surveillance service, demonstrating the dual use of remotely piloted aircraft.
“The aim was to define and test the air traffic control and operation procedures applicable to a remotely piloted aircraft and to evaluate the safety of the satellite link and the reaction capacity of the aircraft’s ground pilot, both in routine operation and in emergency situations,” ESA and EDA said in a joint press release issued April 26.
The Heron, a medium-altitude, long-endurance drone operated by Israel Aerospace Industries, took off at 11 a.m. local time and completed a 6-hr. demonstration timed to coincide with civil and military flights operating from the San Javier base, which shares facilities with Murcia Airport.
After takeoff, the aircraft switched from its line-of-sight data link to a satellite data link, initiating its operational mission in segregated airspace and transmitting signals to the ground from onboard sensors.
The UAV climbed to 20,000 ft., entering airspace class C managed by AENA, the Spanish air navigation service provider, from Barcelona Control Center. The Heron pilot followed indications issued by AENA air traffic controllers, “acting like any other civil or military aircraft,” according to the release. “The difference is that the pilot was not on board and the radio communication with the control center was transmitted from the aircraft to the operator via satellite.”
During this phase of the flight, a manned aircraft from Spain’s Air Force Academy approached the Heron, simulating frontal and 90º collision trajectories. The pilots of the two aircraft followed separation instructions issued by air traffic controllers, demonstrating the safe operation of remotely piloted aircraft, even in an emergency situation such as the separation of two aircraft on a collision course.
Throughout the exercise, data from Indra’s SACTA (AENA’s automatic air traffic control system based on secondary radars) was available to the Heron pilot, enabling improved situational awareness of nearby aircraft with more detail and precision than an onboard pilot would have.