Ikhana’s milestone flight

Maintenance crews prepare NASA’s Ikhana at the Armstrong Flight Research Centre on June 12, 2018, ahead of its test flight to validate key technologies and operations necessary for UAV operations in civil airspace.
Ken Ulbrich/NASA

On June 12, a large UAV flew in the United States’ National Airspace System on its own for the first time. NASA’s Ikhana, a General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc MQ-9 Predator B from the Armstrong Flight Research Centre at Edwards Air Force Base, California, conducted the flight, which marks a major milestone in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) efforts to integrate large UAV operations in civil airspace in the United States. Ikhana departed Edwards and entered Class A airspace, where commercial airliners fly, just to the west at an altitude of about 20,000ft. The aircraft then turned north towards Fresno, requiring air traffic control to be transferred from the Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Centre to the Oakland centre. On the return trip, Ikhana flew south towards Victorville, requiring communication control to be transferred back to Los Angeles. The remote pilot then began a gentle decent over the city of Tehachapi into Class E airspace at about 10,000ft and approached Victorville Airport at 6,000ft, coordinating in real time with air traffic controllers at the airport, before returning to Edwards.

The demonstration saw Ikhana use its own detect and avoid technologies, which complied with FAA Technical Standard Orders, including an airborne radar developed by General Atomics, a Honeywell traffic alert and collision avoidance system and a detect and avoid fusion tracker. Mark Broadbent