NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center flew its Ikhana MQ-9 unmanned aircraft with an Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) device for the first time last month. It was the first time an unmanned aircraft as large as Ikhana – with a 66-foot wingspan, a takeoff weight of more than 10,000 pounds, and a cruising altitude of 40,000 feet -- has flown while equipped with ADS-B, an aircraft tracking technology that all planes operating in certain U.S. airspace must adopt by January 2020 to comply with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations.
It also was the first flight of hardware for the NASA Aeronautics research project known as UAS in the NAS, which is short for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the National Airspace System. Being equipped with ADS-B enables Ikhana to provide much more detailed position, velocity, and altitude information about itself to air traffic controllers, airborne pilots of other ADS-B equipped aircraft flying in its vicinity, and to its pilots on the ground. Currently, only air traffic controllers can see all the aircraft in any given section of the sky.
As part of a collaborative effort, FAA's William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, NJ recorded ADS-B data from the flight, and will help analyze the performance of the system installed in the aircraft. Researchers also evaluated new ADS-B laptop software for displaying surrounding air traffic information to the UAS pilots on the ground.
ADS-B is a key component of the largest transformation of air traffic control ever attempted in the United States. Known as the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), it is a multi-billion-dollar technology modernization effort that will make air travel safer, more flexible, and more efficient.
Current tracking devices aboard aircraft are called transponders, but the ADS-B isn't just a new transponder. It provides much more detailed and accurate information to air traffic controllers, and will enable navigation by satellite in addition to the current system of ground radars. The ADS-B constantly and automatically broadcasts information every second to air traffic controllers. The more frequent updates, coupled with information updated through the Global Positioning System, result in much greater accuracy in the display of an aircraft's position, velocity, and altitude.