ING Robotic Aviation and Sagetech Corporation teamed to make Canadian aviation history back in November, as a manned aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) flew in shared airspace, demonstrating how a new generation of lightweight avionics might be the answer to safely integrating manned and unmanned aircraft operations.
For 90 minutes, a 10-kilogram Serenity UAV, designed and operated by ING Robotic Aviation of Ottawa, flew above the Casselman Aerodrome along with of a manned Harvard Mark IV, a fixed-wing, single-engine aircraft operated by Canada’s National Research Council. Each aircraft was equipped with a Sagetech XP transponder, designed and manufactured by Sagetech Corp. of Hood River, Oregon. At just 100 grams, the Sagetech XP transponder is the first that is small enough to be carried on a lightweight UAV.
With the advent of the transponders and new, lightweight Clarity ADS-B receivers also developed by Sagetech, the aircraft pilot, the operator of the UAV and ground personnel were able to track the position and flight path of both aircraft in real time.
“We wanted to prove that we could safely put up a UAV in civilian airspace,” explained Wilson Pearce, Chief Operating Officer of ING. “This test addressed the technical requirements of a sense-and-avoid system, showing that these communications technologies could support UAV ‘beyond line of sight’ operations in Canada.”
Civil Aviation Authorities have begun to explore options for operating small UAVs alongside manned aircraft in controlled airspace. Most UAVs are too small to be seen by pilots of other aircraft or by radar. Transponders solve this problem, but until the advent of Sagetech’s XP transponder, most were too bulky and heavy for all but the largest UAVs to carry.
“These kinds of flight tests show how our XP transponders facilitate the sense-and avoid-solution, transforming a UAV from an uncooperative to a cooperative target with minimal weight impact,” agreed Kelvin Scribner, president of Sagetech Corp. “We really value partnering with innovative companies like ING Engineering who are out front, advancing the industry by demonstrating what’s possible.”
During the flight test, both the manned and the unmanned aircraft broadcast their ADS-B positions using Sagetech XP transponders. The pilot and ING Engineering ground operators received those messages with Sagetech Clarity ADS-B receivers, which relayed the signal wirelessly to an Apple iPad. Using the WingX Pro7 application by Hilton Software, the iPad plotted the positions of both aircraft on an electronic sectional chart, indicating their exact location, heading and altitude.
“We are very excited that WingX Pro7 was selected as the EFB application of choice to be used in such a historic event,” said Hilton Goldstein of Hilton Software. “This demonstration definitely represents a step in the right direction as the industry begins to adopt ADS-B technology.”
“I’m quite sure this was the first time a transponder code has been assigned to a UAV in Canada,” noted Ian Glenn, CEO of ING Robotic Aviation. Sagetech’s Clarity receiver not only made the two participating aircraft visible, Pearce added, the UAV ground operator also was able to monitor a commercial aircraft on approach to Ottawa/Macdonald-Cartier International Airport, as well as track and communicate with a civilian aircraft pilot approaching another private airstrip south of the test area.
“We’re demonstrating the future here,” remarked Scribner, “Our ADS-B-enabled XP transponders and Clarity receivers are facilitating the use of unmanned aircraft. Aerial robots interacting with traditional airplanes are like a sci-fi story line, but that’s what we’re demonstrating today.
“This is the next generation of aviation airspace management, augmenting and improving on the radar system that’s been around since World War II,” Scribner added. “It’s smaller, lighter, easier, faster—and it’s compatible with 21st-century technologies like UAVs.”
Joint manned/unmanned operations could be beneficial in situations such as wilderness firefighting or search-and-rescue operations. UAVs equipped with ADS-B transponders, for example, could work alongside aircraft to monitor fire activity and manage firefighting strategies with lower risk and at a lower cost than helicopters.
“This test shows that technically, we have a transponder-based solution to support beyond-line-of-sight flight in controlled airspace,” noted Glenn. “Now that we’ve overcome the technical challenge, it allows us to address the regulatory environment to support these kinds of operations.”