Tillamook Range Tests Drone Flights at the Edge of Space

Near Space Corp. (NSC), operator of the UAS test range at Tillamook, Ore., says it successfully flew a drone from the edge of space to operate as a surrogate test bed for technologies supporting new suborbital reusable launch vehicles (SRLVs) currently under development. The Sept. 26th test, conducted for NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, was the first of many flights that will be taking advantage of a unique FAA high-altitude certificate of authorization (COA), according to NSC.

Breaking new ground in the emerging UAS regulatory arena, the flight was designed to help evaluate how advanced FAA surveillance technologies could be applied to winged SRLVs. NSC notes it has been conducting flight tests of Mars airplane prototypes and other high-altitude unmanned aircraft since 2001, but this is the first operation to be conducted under the FAA’s new UAS rules. The Tillamook range, like Oregon’s other UAS ranges in Warm Springs and Pendleton, is part of the Pan Pacific UAS Test Range Complex, one of the six FAA-designated UAS test sites.

With the support of the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation, NSC integrated the advanced surveillance payload into an unpowered version of its high-altitude shuttle system (HASS), a lifting body designed with glide performance similar to the commercial winged SRLV designs currently being developed for suborbital flights and winged vehicles capable of returning from the International Space Station.

After being launched under a stratospheric balloon system from the Johnson Near Space Center, co-located with the Tillamook UAS test range, NSC’s HASS was carried to over 70,000 feet before being released to simulate a SRLV entry of tightly controlled Class A airspace from above, then passing through it for final descent and successful landing on a runway. The return flight took a little over 30 minutes for the descent back to Tillamook, all the while being tracked by the FAA’s Seattle Air Traffic Control Center and observed remotely by FAA personnel at the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation Office in Washington, D.C., and other locations.

NSC says the data and initial results of the test are still being analyzed, and a second flight is planned for sometime in the next few weeks. This flight demonstrated basic proof of concept for use of the HASS as a “flying test bed” for advanced surveillance technologies (and potentially other safety-enabling technologies) for winged commercial SRLVs, NSC adds.

More information about the test and the COA is available here.


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