NASA is finalizing expansion of its Integrated Systems Research program to tackle the problem of integrating unmanned air systems (UAS) into national airspace, but is re-assessing its immediate project priorities while awaiting the release of funding for 2011.

Revealing new details of NASA’s five-year plan to study UAS integration, ISR program director Edgar Waggoner says the effort will officially begin “as soon as we get the budget.” With the release of funds the agency plans to “contribute capabilities that will reduce the rather formidable technical barriers related to safety and the operational challenges associated with routine UAS access to the national airspace system (NAS),” he says.

Although earmarked for $30 million per year from 2011 onward, the program cannot formally start until the delayed budget is approved. Waggoner estimates that a likely go-ahead around March will leave only seven months in the remainder of this fiscal year. “So we’ll have to make some decisions as to what we will need to do,” he adds. The UAS study will become a running mate under the ISR banner to the Environmentally Responsible Aviation program, now entering its second year, which is assessing new vehicle technologies aimed at simultaneously reducing fuel burn, emissions and noise.

Outlining plans at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics aerospace sciences meeting here, Waggoner says the effort will cover all sizes of UAS and meets a growing demand for integration already recognized in the FAA’s NextGen airspace plan. “There’s an increasing urgency to enable UAS to perform missions of vital importance to national security and defense, emergency management and science,” he adds.

The program will address key shortfalls standing in the way of routine UAS deployment. These include automated separation assurance integrated with a collision avoidance system, robust communications technology, robust human integration and standardized safety and certification requirements. Underpinning the effort are several main assumptions including the key driver that UAS operations will not degrade the safety of the airspace system, and that the integration of unmanned systems will provide “substantial benefits,” he says. NASA adds the separation assurance technology research will only look at collision avoidance in terms of required interfaces, and not specific sense-and-avoid algorithms.

Split into two main phases, the first part of the program from 2011 to 2012 will focus on initial modeling, some flight testing and simulation. The second phase, between 2013 and 2015, will continue with additional simulation, flight tests and integrated modeling.

The effort will also have to overcome what United Technologies Research Center advanced programs chief Michael Frances describes as “institutional barriers” to airspace access for unmanned aircraft. Commenting at the AIAA conference, Frances says this access is “driven by a manned aircraft paradigm,” and forms “the biggest single impediment” to successful, and eventually, full-scale integration. “It comes in two flavors. With a manned aircraft, we certify the system and examine the intelligence (of the pilot). With a UAS, I suggest we continue to certify the hardware and even the software. But for the ability piece I suggest we not try to segment those things and that we should examine the integrated system intelligence together.”