BY ELWOOD BREHMER, ALASKA JOURNAL OF COMMERCE
With a little hard work, Kenai’s John Parker might just be able to answer the biggest question facing the Federal Aviation Administration: Can manned and unmanned aircraft coexist?
Parker, founder of Integrated Robotics Imaging Systems Ltd., acquired exclusive patent rights to a prototype “sense and avoid” radar for unmanned aerial vehicles in early April from a University of Denver research team.
“My phone’s kind of been ringing off the hook since it went public that I’ve got this thing,” Parker said.
While in Alaska for the opening of the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex, headquartered in Fairbanks, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said safely integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace is the biggest challenge the emerging technology presents.
An unmanned aerial vehicle becomes an unmanned aerial system, or UAS, when outfitted with a camera, radar, or other equipment to perform a specific task, Parker explained.
“(UAS) flights in VFR (visual flight rules) airspace, where there is no air traffic control, that raises one set of issues and the kind of questions we need to understand is who else is using that VFR airspace and can they see this aircraft because VFR airspace relies on ‘see and avoid,’” Huerta said.
For UAS, the FAA mantra is transformed to “sense and avoid,” according to Parker.
The “sense” part of the equation has seemingly been worked out. The radar can detect small aircraft and their altitude, speed and direction up to a mile away, he said. During tests at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Parker said it correctly identified planes and their routes with 99.99 percent accuracy while the takeoff and landing frequency was as high as one every 39 seconds.
As far as he is aware, Parker’s radar is the most advanced unmanned aircraft sense and avoid system in the country, he said.
Parker’s curiosity in unmanned aerial vehicles grew in 2011 when using the craft to monitor debris washing up on Alaska’s shore from the Japanese earthquake was considered.
Parker incorporated Integrated Robotics Imaging Systems in November 2012 and began assembling engineering talent and industry expertise, he said.
“In my research I actually stumbled across this white paper on radar-based detection and it piqued my interest because I knew being an aircraft (accident) investigator for a lot of years — the key to UAVs in the national airspace is collision avoidance,” he said. “That’s the key to the whole thing.”
The Integrated Robotics team currently consists of five people across the U.S. and Canada and is headquartered in Kenai. His team will soon be centralized on the Peninsula, he said.
When placed under a protective dome, the 12-ounce radar with a roughly four-inch square antenna will be tested on the Infotron IT180, a French-made, dual-rotor unmanned platform at Pan-Pacific Range sites, Parker said.
The Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, run by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, had its Pan-Pacific Range, which includes test sites in Oregon and Hawaii, chosen by the FAA in December as one of six UAS testing operations nationwide. The ranges are a major step in the FAA’s attempt to develop guidelines for melding commercial UAS operations into the national airspace, something Congress has dictated be done by the end of 2015.
At 31 pounds and with a 71-inch rotor diameter, the IT180 can carry the radar and classifies as a small craft. It is significantly larger than other unmanned aircraft in production — which are often less than 10 pounds — meaning the radar will have to be downsized to make it truly universal.
Parker said phased array antennas of about an inch-square are available and doesn’t foresee downsizing the radar to be an issue.
The next big hurdle, he said is developing a software program to handle the “avoid” part of the equation. If the radar detects an aircraft flying a potentially dangerous route nearby, the software needs to take over if the pilot on the ground doesn’t respond appropriately, or in time, Parker stressed.
“The real-time capability of this equipment is key and that autonomous timing situation to make sure that if we have to we take the pilot out of the scenario and the aircraft avoids a target and we’re talking about very little time,” he said. “That envelope is going to be very small.”
Exactly how short the timeframe needs to be will be determined during testing, but Parker said he believes it will be in the “tenths of seconds.”
Parker’s plan is for his team to have software ready to test and fly in six to 10 months, he said.
Once the bugs are worked out, it’s a matter of designing a universal plug adapting the radar to other UAVs, he said.
Ultimately, Parker sees Integrated Robotics as about 18 months away from manufacturing its first commercial sense and avoid radar system, a timeline that fits with FAA’s.
He already has a 3,000 square-foot building in South Kenai waiting to be the Integrated Robotics manufacturing facility when the time comes.
Putting each unit together will take an additional five-person crew “a couple days” once a system is in place, Parker estimates. Then, it’s on to the sale.
With much work left to do a price point for the early radar systems has not been set, but when considering the technology and the fact that radars for small general aviation are often $15,000, a $7,000 to $10,000 tag would not be unreasonable, he said.
“If we produce a quality product, we won’t have any problem selling it,” he said.
For Parker, getting the equipment in the hands of those that need it is the most important thing.
“Because it’s a one-off and there’s no comparative you’ve got to look at the value to the client, and it fulfills two issues,” he said. “One, it allows companies to meet the requirements FAA is going to put on all of us, and two, by meeting those requirements it will drive revenue to their company. We see there’s an additional spin-off on that for us because as it drives revenue to their company they’re going to be needing more so it will create follow-on revenue for us.”