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Predator drones more likely in civil airspace after successful tests

Steve Dent, @stevetdent
February 17, 2015
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A Predator B drone has successfully completed tests with so-called sense-and-avoid radar, bringing it a step closer to legal operation in US and international airspace. You may be thinking, "haven't they already operated extensively in places like Iraq?" Yes, but in the US and other nations where skies are packed with traffic, drones are forbidden to operate. The flight test, conducted by Predator manufacturer General Atomics (using a NASA-owned Predator B) consisted of "scripted encounters" with multiple aircraft at Edwards Air Force base. The idea was to test the drone's ability to detect other planes with air-to-air radar and see how it fares under civilian air traffic control (TCAS II) systems.

Congress wanted the FAA to get drones into civil airspace by this year for search-and-rescue, border patrol and other chores. But the necessary sense-and-avoid radar systems have proved more complex than thought, and many experts say that the agency will be lucky to achieve the goal by 2020. The Predator B passed all the tests by automatically avoiding the other aircraft in what General Atomics called a "milestone achievement." It'll continue to test the systems aboard NASA's drone throughout the year, but don't expect to see the infamous UAV hovering over your house anytime soon.

[Image credit: Getty Images]

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