Pilot-Tolerant UAV Has First Flight

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Looks like it won't be long before the plane in front of you holding short might have all the patience in the world. Altair, the test bed for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) designed to share the airspace with piloted aircraft, completed its first flight June 9. The long-winged version of the military Predator UAV (86 feet vs. 64 feet) stayed close to home at the General Atomics's flight-test facility at El Mirage, Calif., on its first flight, gliding to a landing after 24 minutes. Ultimately, however, it's designed to fly for up to 32 hours as high as 52,000 feet and carry up to 750 pounds of communications, sensing, radar and imaging gear in its forward fuselage. And it's designed to do it from the airports the rest of us fly from. "This is what we've been waiting for," said Glenn Hamilton, project manager. "Now we can move forward with getting UAVs into the national airspace and conducting research." To keep it (and us) out of harm's way, the Altair comes with triple-redundant avionics, a "fault tolerant" dual-architecture flight-control system, an automated collision-avoidance system and an air traffic control voice relay allowing ATC to talk through the UAV to ground-based pilots. Satellite links will keep the pilots in control and also relay whatever data the UAV is gathering. Among the applications for such an aircraft are environmental science missions, like watching volcanoes, forest fire monitoring and atmospheric sampling, missions considered too dangerous, difficult or lengthy for manned flights. NASA's taking part in the program