NASA Commissions Study on Impact of Advanced Aircraft

Earlier this week NASA awarded a $12 million grant to two companies who are to study the impact that a variety of new aircraft have on the nation’s air traffic control system. The two companies, Raytheon and Sensis, have each received $6 million contracts to conduct the necessary research.

The study will examine the impact that aircraft, such as super heavy transports, very light jets, supersonic transports, unmanned airplanes, private space launches, and vertical and short landing and takeoff (V/STOL) aircraft will have on United States airspace. Some of these aircraft are already in use and so are already having an impact on current air traffic volumes. The two companies will be expected to develop recommendations for flight characteristics and safety standards for these futuristic creations based on simulations and models. According to watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), federal, military and civil aviation groups all need to do a lot of work to ensure that the growing community of unmanned aircraft is able to gain routine access to public airspaces. The GAO also said that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) needs to get Congress to coordinate unmanned aircraft development and integration and that the FAA must also work in conjunction with the Department of Defense who already have a lot of experience with this type of aircraft. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must also assess the security implications of allowing such air traffic. Despite having all these different aspects of safety and security seen to, the GAO said that routine access of unmanned aircraft in the national airspace system may not be granted until as late as 2020. As if the advent of unmanned aircraft wasn’t taxing enough, the recent addition of very light jet ‘air taxi’ services are fast growing in popularity and Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures are hoping to start offering weekly suborbital space tourism flights within the next two years. Clearly airspace is becoming very crowded very quickly and something needs to be done about it.

With that in mind, NASA has commissioned the new research and development project. The research will be directed by NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) to ensure that the project moves ahead smoothly and NASA will be collaborating with a number of other US government agencies and industries in order to best solve the problem. By the end of the project, surveillance, networking and satellite-based navigational aids should hopefully be used to successfully assist with the growing air traffic demands.