NASA announced successfully flying its Ikhana drone in the U.S. national airspace without using a safety chase plane. The goal of the test flight carried out on June 12, 2018, was to determine if an unmanned aircraft could operate safely within the airspace shared by commercial and private aircraft.

The Ikhana drone is based on the MQ-9 Predator UCAV airframe with a wingspan of 20 meters. It is equipped with a radar and several Detect and Avoid systems which allow the drone to broadcast its position and to reach the level of awareness required by the FAA, without the use of ground observers or a chase plane to acknowledge surrounding aircraft.

The agency is looking into applications such a drone could have in monitoring natural disasters, or assist search and rescue operations.

"This is a huge milestone for our Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the National Airspace System project team," said Ed Waggoner, the director of the program at NASA, adding "We worked closely with our Federal Aviation Administration colleagues for several months to ensure we met all their requirements to make this initial flight happen."

The flight was carried out around Edwards Air Force Base (EDW) in the Mojave Desert. The drone reached an altitude of 6 kilometers where other commercial planes operate. It was monitored by two air traffic control centers (Los Angeles and Oakland), requiring control to be transferred from one to the other. It was then tested at an altitude of 1.8 km before successfully returning to base.