See And Avoid? A Skyfull Of UAVs

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While one arm of the government worries about how the FAA will cope with the existing air traffic load, another is spending $360 million to figure out how to squeeze scores of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into the mix. NASA, along with five companies that make remotely piloted and robotic aircraft, are undertaking a five-year study aimed at putting unmanned aircraft on the same airways and at the same altitudes as conventional planes so they can take on jobs like forest-fire surveillance, relaying communications and keeping watch on hurricanes. "The fundamental tenet is to preserve the safety of the airspace," said NASA project manager Jeff Bauer. Although unmanned aerial vehicles have flown outside of military and other restricted airspace, they've always been tightly controlled. Integration into regular airspace will be gradual, focusing first on flights above 40,000 feet but eventually involving operations as low as 18,000 feet. The ultimate goal is the kind of "file and fly" flexibility now enjoyed by planes with people on board. The study findings will be turned over the FAA, which has the final say on who or what flies where.