The unmanned-aviation industry will be anxiously awaiting the release of new U.S. government regulations that may provide clues to whether unpiloted aircraft will receive flight rights in the national airspace.
The Federal Aviation Administration is expected next year to publish updated rules for the operation of small unmanned air vehicles that weigh no more than 55 pounds. Manufacturers of UAVs — which have thrived in the military market — will be closely watching these developments as they seek to attract civilian customers, such as law-enforcement agencies and oil-drilling companies.
That the FAA is drafting new regulations signals to the industry that the agency may eventually institute rules for UAVs to fly in the U.S. airspace just like conventional airplanes, which means they would not have to apply for special permits as they do today.
Other promising indications for the industry are that the FAA has created a “UAV program office” and has signed several “cooperative research and development” agreements with manufacturers that allow FAA personnel to fly companies’ UAVs in order to gain hands-on experience on how they are operated.
“They’ll start developing a rule package that will allow us incrementally to gain access to the airspace,” said Paul McDuffee, vice president of commercial business development at Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary in Bingen, Wash., that supplies UAVs to the U.S. military.
The company recently signed a two-year deal with the FAA that gives agency operators free access to two Insitu-made ScanEagle aircraft and ground-control stations.
Similar arrangements also are in place with other UAV and flight-software makers, including General Atomics, AAI Corp. and GE Aviation Systems.
The ScanEagle will be flown from the FAA’s technology center in Atlantic City, N.J., and will be used by both the FAA and the New Jersey National Guard.
The Atlantic City facility is home to a new simulator that replicates the so-called Next Generation Air Transportation System, which the FAA plans to introduce in the coming years. For UAV firms, the launch of the next-gen technology can’t come soon enough, because it is expected to automate the control of air traffic and, technically, make it easier to allow more vehicles to fly safely.
The FAA is taking a cautious approach as it fears that added congestion in the skies will lead to trouble, especially at the lower altitudes where small UAVs would be flying. Already the airspace over major U.S. cities is crowded with helicopters, small fixed-wing airplanes and corporate jets, experts warn.
UAV operators have complained that the FAA takes too long to approve flying permits, and that the red tape is the reason why the civilian UAV market has not taken off. The industry has for at least the past two decades lobbied for regulatory relief, but the FAA maintains that too little is still known about the safety of UAVs.
Permits can take several weeks to receive approval from the FAA. “The goal is 60 days once the application is reviewed and found to have all the required information,” said FAA spokesman Les Dorr. “Currently, we are running a little behind, but we have put emphasis on the process and we are moving closer to achieving this goal,” he told National Defense.
According to the FAA administrator’s fact book, dated March 2010, just over 21,000 UAV flights were authorized in 2009, which amounts to less than one percent of all U.S. air traffic.
Approvals are granted based on the potential risks, Dorr said. Highly populated areas, stretches near busy airports and spaces of concentrated air traffic are considered the most dangerous. “These are areas where we normally do not approve UAS operations without a careful analysis of the proposed operation,” Dorr said. “The FAA will not knowingly permit any unsafe aircraft, manned or unmanned, to fly in the national airspace system.”
A major unknown is whether UAVs can see and avoid other airplanes, just as a human pilot would. The Defense Department and other government agencies have funded the development of new “sense-and-avoid” devices for unpiloted aircraft, but FAA officials so far remain skeptical that the technology is foolproof.
McDuffee predicts it could be 10 years before the FAA becomes comfortable with unmanned aviation and adopts a less restrictive regulatory regime.
For now, the domestic UAV market will remain negligible, he said. ”It’s so small you need a magnifying glass to see it,” he said in an interview. “It’s the state of the regulatory environment that exists right now that essentially prohibits free access to the national airspace by unmanned aircraft,” McDuffee said. “It’s been very challenging to create a market for non-Defense Department activity.”
There are still some limited opportunities to market UAVs in the United States, he said. Most of Insitu’s work in the non-military area has been with colleges, universities and research organizations.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rented a ScanEagle to survey mammals in the Arctic. The University of North Dakota used one to monitor the Red River flood this spring. Environmental research, marine surveys and disaster monitoring will fuel demand for UAVs, said McDuffee.
Public safety and law-enforcement agencies also are expected to become greater users of UAVs. Already the Department of Homeland Security has deployed Predators to patrol the U.S.-Mexico and Canadian borders, and monitor Caribbean drug traffickers. The FAA recently granted the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency a “certificate of authorization” to fly Predators over the Texas-Mexico border and the Gulf Coast.
“It’s everyone’s belief that over the next 10 to 15 years the commercial use of these systems will surpass the military,” he said. “That’s the belief of the industry across the board. … UAVs are here to stay. It’s just a matter of working the regulatory steps so they can fly in the airspace without jeopardizing lives or property.”
McDuffee said there is no solid data that prove that UAVs are either safe or unsafe. That is one reason why the FAA has been interested in learning how to operate the aircraft and testing them, so officials can begin to gather such information, he said.
“This is still a relatively new industry,” McDuffee said. UAVs have thousands of flight hours, but flight data have not been shared between the operators of UAVs and the regulators. “The exchange have been very slow,” he said. “It’s improving but it’s not keeping up with the demand.”