You're climbing out of Newark (N.J.) Liberty International Airport after a rare on-time takeoff and just about to reach your cruising altitude of 35,000 feet when you notice something strange out your window. You see another aircraft about a half mile off your left wing that just keeps climbing; in fact, it's passing you.
Could it be a UFO? More likely, it's a UAV.
That would make it part of a little talked about NASA-led program that has been kicking around for the past few years. But HALE ROA, as the project is called, is still very much in play, which means there could be lots of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) flying around the U.S. over the next few years as NASA, the FAA, the Pentagon, and several aerospace firms try to determine if it's safe for these small, stealthy, and highly manueverable aircraft to be buzzing around in commercial airspace.
So far, UAV flights have been given restricted access to the National Airspace System (NAS) by agreement between NASA, the DoD, and FAA Air Traffic Control. This means they're confined to operating at altitudes exceeding 40,000 feet, well above where most commercial air traffic operates. But as NASA and the FAA gain more experience, they intend to routinely fly these small aircraft in unrestricted airpspace anywhere above 18,000 feet. UAVs could be a regular part of the air traffic control network by the end of 2008.
NASA has received funding for a program called Access Five, an industry initiative led by companies that see big opportunities for using multiple camera and sensor-equipped UAVs for long endurance or high-risk missions such as broadband RF relays, or for agricultural analysis (picking the harvest ripe field). Other applications being touted for these relatively inexpensive aircraft include tracking homeland security threats (monitoring U.S. borders, for example), law enforcement, around-the-clock weather and traffic monitoring, and monitoring forest fires.
Engineers at NASA's Ames Research Center and Dryden Flight Research Center conducted flight tests over a "virtual" forest fire early this year to evaluate new flight-control software that will allow UAVs to autonomously react to obstacles as they fly pre-programmed missions. The tests were conducted over a remote area of Edwards Air Force Base in California to investigate cooperative flight strategies for airborne monitoring and surveillance of natural disasters and for atmospheric sampling.
The Access Five organization includes a group called UNITE (UAV National Industry Team Endeavor), and representatives from NASA, FAA, and the DoD. Also involved in the program is RTCA, a private, not-for-profit, Washington, DC-based third-party, which has set up what it calls Special Committee 203 to work on engineering and certification standards for the UAV project. (What is RTCA? "It doesn't stand for anything now," says an FAA spokesman, "although about 20 or 30 years ago it was 'radio technology' something.")
Access Five has already developed a plan to create a structure for UAVs operating in U.S. airspace. The FAA has encourged Access Five planners to specify certified pilots as UAV operators, insisting that UAV operations in the national airspace be held to a standard at least as stringent as for manned aircraft. (The message: Licensed pilots and experienced military UAV operators may apply; video game aces probably shouldn't bother.) The FAA also wants the UAVs to be operated out of a standard ground control station configured in a "cockpit similar" design.
The DoD's role at this point is centered largely within the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has established a UAV Interoperability Working Group. DARPA's objective is to establish a common set of rules for the use of UAVs across the U.S.
Six aerospace firms are also directly involved in the program. They include Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, AeroVironment, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, and Aurora Flight Sciences. (Boeing and DARPA have said they have already demonstrated to their satisfaction that a UAV controlled from the ground could be integrated into air-traffic-controlled airspace with manned aircraft.)
Project officials anticipate using a range of UAVs such as the remotely piloted Altair, Perseus B and Pathfinder-Plus, the autonomously operated Global Hawk that has proved so successful in Iraq, and piloted aircraft such as the Proteus to conduct flight demonstrations of various procedures and capabilities as they are developed for HALE ROA. NASA says the choice of aircraft would depend on economics and the most appropriate method of accomplishing testing of UAVs being considered for the program.
If Access Five is successful, the FAA says it expects additional requests from other commercial UAV projects that are planning to operate in U.S. airspace. Could all this new air traffic lead to a flood of UFO sightings? Possibly, but at least the Pentagon and FAA won't be telling us they're weather balloons.