As the demand for unmanned aerial vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan continues to increase, government agencies and contractors are clamoring to use aerial drones for domestic missions in U.S. national airspace.
But the proliferation of remotely operated aircraft in carefully regulated civilian airspace is cause for concern to the Federal Aviation Administration, the government arm that is responsible for regulating civil aviation.
FAA policies currently prevent most unmanned aircraft from flying in national airspace because the agency hasn’t developed thorough procedures for approving them. More flight data that ensures drones are safe is needed before rules can be written, the agency says.
“The FAA hasn’t yet published rules or policy on the certification of unmanned air systems,” says Alison Duquette, FAA spokeswoman. “The FAA’s main concern about operations in civil airspace is safety. It is critical that these vehicles don’t come too close to aircraft carrying people or compromise the safety of anyone on the ground,” an agency document says. If an unmanned aircraft crashes into another airplane or injures people on the ground, the FAA will bear a heavy weight. Last year, the first drone that was flown by U.S. Customs and Border Protection crashed in the Arizona desert. Although no one was injured, the incident illustrates safety concerns.
The FAA has only issued 13 permits for civilian aerial drones, Duquette says. General Atomics was the first to receive a certificate in August 2005 for its Altair system. These approvals are called experimental licenses, which allow for research and development and crew training, according to an FAA document.
Every aircraft that flies in national airspace must have an experimental permit or a certificate of authorization (COA), Duquette says.
The agency uses the experimental certification process for manned aircraft when evaluating an unmanned aircraft request, she adds. Since the approval process is still in flux, each unmanned systems company must run a safety system analysis and submit the results to the FAA, in addition to standard requirements for the experimental certificate.
Before UAV flight regulations can be written, the agency needs to evaluate the systems in flight and ensure safety precautions are in place. “We do need a significant amount of data to develop regulations … we need to be able to put the proper bounds around the challenge we are faced with,” Duquette explains.
One expert encourages the FAA to collaborate with those who regularly fly unmanned systems. Basil Papadales, principal with Moiré Inc., a UAV consulting firm in Issaquah, Wash., says that many private firms and universities test their drones every day without permits. These groups find a sparsely populated area, far away from airports, to try out their systems. The FAA could incorporate this experimental data into regulations, he says.
When offered this suggestion, Duquette notes that the FAA tries to do this when possible, but is limited by tightly guarded proprietary information that many private companies are wary of sharing.
There are still many groups who are willing to offer up data in the interest of market development, Papadales says.
If the FAA can write its policies by 2010, the industry will quickly take off, he asserts. By his company’s estimates, the civil market will be worth $2.6 billion between 2008 and 2017 if the agency can make the 2010 date.
The FAA would not release a firm timeline for development of unmanned aircraft policies and rules, only saying, “regulations will be evolving incrementally over the next several years.”
The agency is also hesitant to write regulations because it wants to ensure unmanned systems are noticeable to larger manned aircraft. Aerial drones are difficult to see and therefore must have the capability to detect, sense and avoid other aircraft, Duquette says. However, FAA asserts that this technology is “years away.”
The agency established an unmanned aircraft program office in February 2006. The organization has worked with the Flight Standards Service, a department within the FAA that develops rules for flight operations, to add unmanned aircraft issues to agency handbooks, Duquette says. The UAV group also worked with the Air Traffic Organization, the air traffic control arm of the agency, on this issue. The FAA is also designing sense-and-avoid technology and an information management system to allow users to know what is happening around them, she says.
The ability to identify and avoid other aircraft is critical to the successful deployment of unmanned systems in national airspace, experts say.
The Air Force Research Laboratory has several programs in the works. The Aerostar, for example, has a sense-and-avoid system that is scheduled to fly in January 2008, says Jim Utt, from Defense Research Associates.
Another project is the Shadow — a three-year effort where Air Force program engineers plan to take existing sense-and-avoid technology and miniaturize it for use on small drones, Utt explains. Demonstrations are scheduled for summer 2009.
Athena Technologies of Warrenton, Va., developed flight controls that allow the vehicle to continue flying after being damaged, which potentially could save the aircraft and payload, the company says. Athena and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently tested the technology on a subscale F/A-18 UAV.
Athena is in the process of getting its products certified by the FAA, says David Vos, the company’s CEO.
Both government and company researchers are developing technologies to help prove the safety and reliability of unmanned systems. Through successful testing and demonstrations, they hope the FAA will begin to approve more vehicles for flight.
Yet some are increasingly frustrated by FAA restrictions.
Donald Shinnamon, chief of public safety in Holly Hill, Fla., asserts that there is a “lack of understanding of public aircraft law on the part of policy makers at the FAA.” Agency documents are not consistent with the federal code of regulations, which state that only civil aircraft, not public, must have a certificate of airworthiness, he says. Public aircraft includes those used by federal, state and local governments.
Police and fire departments are interested in using unmanned aircraft to patrol crime scenes, relay fire information and protect critical infrastructure, among other missions, Shinnamon says during the conference.
But the main challenge is trying to get access to the airspace, Shinnamon says. Several police departments have tried to prove the airworthiness of their drones, but have been denied by the agency, he adds. “FAA won’t engage in dialogue with non-Defense operators.”
The FAA disagrees. “We have had dialogue with several police departments,” Duquette says, “but there is an expectation that the public agencies are ensuring their aircraft is airworthy. In doing this, we have found that several police departments do not understand this requirement, and consequently do not understand other issues like operating responsibility and airspace.”
Although FAA restrictions are sometimes blamed for the slow development of the civil UAS market, Papadales offers other explanations.
He believes that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan delayed development of aerial drones for civil applications. Until recently, companies were mostly interested in tapping into the defense market because of the urgency of the war, he says.
“Industry became so focused on the military market, that it missed some significant opportunities to start viable civil businesses,” Papadales says.
After 9/11, analysts first predicted that such aircraft would be widely used for homeland security, but once DHS was created, it concentrated its efforts on tightening security for commercial aviation, he says. The FAA also created new restrictions for flying in national airspace, which made it even more difficult to use unmanned aircraft for civilian missions. Aerial drones are just now starting to be used for DHS missions, such as border surveillance.
Defense Department purchases of unmanned aerial systems grew exponentially from 217 systems that were bought in 2002 to 3,428 bought in 2006, says Papadales. The military spent nearly $2.5 billion on drones in 2006.
The UAV industry now comprises four U.S. companies with major production programs, 15 U.S. firms with significant research and development or limited production and more than 40 smaller suppliers, Papadales says.
Much of the industry focuses on military unmanned systems, but this strong industrial base could actually be the basis for a civil aerial drone market, he suggests.
A wave of veterans coming home from war will also increase the popularity of the drones for civilian use, he asserts. As soldiers and contractors return home, they will bring with them unmanned aircraft experience or knowledge. Additionally, a disproportionate number of deployed troops come from the Reserves and National Guard, many of whom are already public servants in the police or fire sectors. They will want to use the unmanned aircraft they used or saw in theater, Papadales asserts.
“If there is equipment that they [soldiers] like, they tend to embrace it emotionally. They are voters and they will be asking their congressmen for them,” he says.
Despite these favorable conditions for the development of a civil UAS market, he notes that other impediments still remain. One major barrier is the high cost of unmanned aircraft. A group of four Predators with ground equipment costs $24 million, and that doesn’t count labor costs for the 55 people who manage and maintain the system, Papadales says.
He notes that a strong civil market could significantly bring down the cost of this expensive technology. In his mind, the high price of military aerial drones could be a catalyst to open up a civil market. “Some people ask, ‘why do we care if there is a civil UAV market’? The real reason it matters is that the price of UAVs on the military side is becoming restrictive,” Papadales says.
“This is an opportunity to drop the price and drive up innovation,” he says.
Despite setbacks, Papadales still forecasts a promising future.
“We’ll get small UAVs into the air,” Papadales asserts.
Analysts agree that it’s a matter of when, not a matter of if, the civil market will take off. Vos predicts that Aerial drones will be flying in national airspace in five years.
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