For the first time, NASA has operated an unmanned aircraft without a safety chase plane in public airspace. This is a new milestone for the space agency, which says the flight involved its Ikhana remote-controlled UAV. Though the agency has operated unmanned aircraft in public airspace before, past missions always included a safety plane following it.
The UAV is based out of NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, where the historic flight happened. According to NASA, which announced the news on Tuesday, this is a major step toward “normalizing” the presence of remotely-controlled UAVs in the same airspace where both private and commercial aircraft are operated.
The public has grown used to autonomous cars, which have made their way onto public roads in multiple states. Unmanned aerial vehicles have a sinister presence in the public mind, meanwhile, which largely regards them as military aircraft used for warfare. However, NASA says there are many uses for such UAVs that benefit industries and society.
For example, unmanned aircraft can be used to help fight forest fires, which often require aerial vehicles to douse areas of land with substances that put out or inhibit fire. These vehicles can also be used for search and rescue missions, covering large areas of land while equipped with things like heat-seeking cameras.
NASA says it was given special permission by the FAA to conduct this unmanned, safety chaser-free test. To help ensure safety, the UAV uses Detect and Avoid technology, which works to avoid any other aircraft that may be in the area. Commercial companies provided some of the technology used with the UAV, including Honeywell and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.