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Applicability of Digital Flight to the Operations of Self-Piloted Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the National Airspace SystemUnmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) hold great promise for a new era of specialized missions, including personal air transportation, cargo flight operations, aerial surveys, inspections, firefighting and more. The anticipated market growth is significant. To unlock its scalability and incumbent benefits requires a human to oversee multiple flights simultaneously, focusing on multi-vehicle mission management and relinquishing to autonomous systems their active role in controlling the aircrafts’ flight paths. Key to the realization of these scalability benefits is minimally-encumbered access to the National Airspace System (NAS), which poses some unique challenges for self-piloted UAS aircraft operations. These include the requirement for compatibility with existing airspace structures and operations including Visual Flight Rules (VFR) and Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), neither of which were developed to accommodate the unique needs and capabilities of UAS.

This paper explores the applicability of Digital Flight to the operations of self-piloted UAS. As proposed by NASA, Digital Flight is a flight operations capability, enabled by a set of cooperative procedures and digital technologies, in which flight operators ensure flight-path safety through automated separation and flight path management in lieu of visual procedures and Air Traffic Control separation services. Flights operating under potentially-forthcoming rules of Digital Flight employ advanced automation technologies, information sharing, connectivity to operational data, and cooperative behaviors through distributed decision-making to maintain safety and achieve mission objectives. Designed for integration with VFR and IFR operations in shared NAS airspace, potentially as a third set of flight rules, Digital Flight may provide the mechanism for UAS operators – and all aircraft operators – to scale and diversify their operations beyond what is achievable under current regulations.
Document ID
Acquisition Source
Langley Research Center
Document Type
Technical Memorandum (TM)
David J Wing
(Langley Research Center Hampton, Virginia, United States)
Andrew Lacher
(Langley Research Center Hampton, Virginia, United States)
William B Cotton
(Cotton Aviation Enterprises Austin, Texas, United States)
John Maris ORCID
(Advanced Aerospace Solutions Hendersonville, North Carolina, United States)
Paul Vajda
(Advanced Aerospace Solutions Hendersonville, North Carolina, United States)
Date Acquired
December 16, 2021
Publication Date
January 1, 2022
Subject Category
Air Transportation And Safety
Funding Number(s)
WBS: 533127.
Distribution Limits
Portions of document may include copyright protected material.
Flight rules
Digital flight
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