By Ann Roosevelt

The Federal Aviation Administration Aug. 19 approved the Army’s Grey Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle (UAS) to fly in national air space using a sense-and-avoid system, a service official said.

The Army in March prepared and submitted a safety case and a request for authorization for use of Ground Based Sense and Avoid System at El Mirage airfield in California, which was approved by the FAA and a certificate of authorization (COA) was issued.

“That is a truly monumental mark for UAS history because it’s the first time the FAA has given any DoD entity approval to fly in the national air space using a sense and avoid system,” Col. Gregory Gonzalez, project manager, Unmanned Aircraft Systems, said during a recent roundtable.

There are, however, some restrictions on the COA, which allows the UAV to fly after dusk and before dawn using the sense and avoid system.

“We’re going to learn a lot from that and in our experience–probably over the next six months to a year–then our hope and goal is to increase the FAA’s confidence in our ability to use the system and increase the scope and locations where we can use that ground based sense and avoid,” Gonzalez said.

The COA will allow additional training time at El Mirage, as the project office prepares for Grey Eagle initial operational tests.

The COA means Grey Eagle won’t be required to fly in restricted air space, which is normally near a military air base, with a chase plane flying with the UAS and/or ground observers.

“There’s more freedom,” he said.

At the El Mirage airfield in California, UAS fly every day, proving new software, flying to examine potential new capabilities, developing tactics, techniques and procedures, or training operators.

The Ground-based Sense and Avoid system uses radars in the area to characterize the airspace, Gonzalez said. If there is a manned aircraft in the area, UAS operators will receive a warning and will land the UAS, allowing the manned aircraft to safely pass through.

The COA does have limits, he said. For example, someone from FAA must be present when the UAS flies in national air space.

That can be difficult to arrange, Gonzalez said, since there are no FAA personnel stationed at El Mirage. Flights in national airspace with FAA personnel available are expected to give the federal agency the confidence to remove restrictions down the road.

The ability to fly in national air space will help keep operators current, he said. For instance, in theater, all the services “operate with impunity,” day or night. When those efforts die down and assets return to the United States, operators will still need to train.