FORT HOOD — Thanks to years of successfully flying unmanned aircraft systems alongside manned aircraft, Fort Hood officials were selected to help write future regulations for the Federal Aviation Administration.
Bob Ulrigg, air traffic and air space officer for Fort Hood, was one of two airfield officials chosen to serve on the FAA-Defense Department workgroup to integrate unmanned aircraft, commonly called drones, into Class D airspace. This classification refers to airspace around a towered airport.
“We’re trying to figure out how to do it safely,” Ulrigg said.
Robert Gray Army Airfield at Fort Hood is the only airfield in the country that has clearance to fly one unmanned aircraft simultaneously with military and civilian manned aircraft. Fort Hood began doing so in 2006, and since then Ulrigg said they’ve petitioned the FAA to allow up to four unmanned aircraft at a time.
“We are taking baby steps forward,” Ulrigg said.
The biggest issue when it comes to integrating UAS, is that there is no pilot in the cockpit with peripheral vision of the aircraft’s surroundings, which doesn’t meet the FAA’s “See and Avoid” criteria.
Separate from the FAA workgroup, Fort Hood will receive the Army’s Ground Base Sense and Avoid system, the latest technology in preventing collisions. This system is a ground-based means of detecting airborne traffic and providing the necessary intelligence to the UAS to mitigate or provide an alternate means of compliance to the FAA “See and Avoid” regulation. It’s a lot like using ground observers, Ulrigg said. Fort Hood’s fleet of Gray Eagles will be used with the system, and these results will be published in 2015.
“It will be fielded here and operating by this time next year,” he said. “The FAA has not accepted it yet, because it has not been tested.”
Fort Hood officials said they will do what they can to continue forward in a safe manner.
“Right now it’s mission driven. The Army is pushing the arena and we want to be proactive to stay ahead of everybody else,” Ulrigg said. At the same time, he said, “We ensure safety is at the forefront of everything we do.”
Ron Gerner, Fort Hood director of aviation operations, said Fort Hood remains incident-free when it comes to UAS flights.
“We can be like everybody else and push back ... or we can take the lead on this,” he said.
Ulrigg said it’s really all about trial and error. “If something doesn’t seem to be working, we change the procedure to make it safer.”
Gerner, a former pilot with 36 years experience, said he would like to see the general population begin to have a greater acceptance of UAS, because of the many uses they have.
“If a child is lost in the forest, these things can go up and find them,” he said referring to the heat-sensing systems on unmanned aircraft. “I think UAS are great.”
Fort Hood’s Hunter UAS was put to use during the major range fires in summer 2012. The UAS could fly for six hours and detect hot spots for the fire department, Gerner said. “We’re excited about UAS in a good way.”