NASA said Thursday it is launching a program that could place robot planes and aircraft flown by human pilots in the same airspace by 2008.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, are now limited primarily to restricted test or military airspace.
“The fundamental underpinnings of this program are, how can we safely introduce this class into the national airspace system?” said Jeff Bauer, manager of the $360 million NASA program.
An industry association, the UAV National Industry Team, as well as the Defense Department and Federal Aviation Administration, are also participating in Access 5, the five-year program to deliver proposals and recommendations to the FAA.
Participants acknowledge that many technical and policy hurdles and much testing lie ahead.
In recent years, robot planes have been involved in some high-profile mishaps, including in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the United States, prototype drones have landed on a freeway, cratered in the desert and crumbled in the skies over Hawaii.
Perfecting the technology — and figuring out how to ensure the drones’ safe operation — could open up the use of robot planes in civilian and commercial applications, including firefighting, border patrol, domestic security and communications.
Industrial partners in the program include the Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems and Aerovironment Inc.