The U.S. military hires contractors to operate certain unmanned aerial vehicles in combat zones. Federal agencies might one day do the same here in the United States.
Insiders call it “fee for service.” It would allow public-safety officials to rent surveillance UAVs during emergencies and scientists to lease them for research missions.
“Many federal agencies don’t have the infrastructure to acquire UAVs, but they still want to make use of the technology,” Steven Reid, AAI Corp.’s vice president for unmanned aircraft systems, said in an interview. With the fee-for-service model, “You only pay for it if you need it.”
AAI, a Maryland-based aerospace and defense company, manufactures the Shadow UAV system, a line of aircraft used for surveillance and reconnaissance. AAI has been supplying Shadow UAVs to the Army since 2002, and the company has more than 100 employees based in Iraq and Afghanistan to maintain them. Last year, the Army asked AAI to start operating some of them, Reid said.
Now, about 60 AAI workers fly eight Shadow UAVs under the direction of an Army commander. Reid said AAI pilots often support combat missions, but the Shadow UAVs are unarmed.
“The Army didn’t have sufficient soldiers to man the equipment in theater, so we do the manning,” Reid said. “We’re not over there let loose. We’re following orders.”
He considers the arrangement a watered-down version of the fee-for-service model because the Army owns the Shadow UAVs. He calls it a GOCO (government-owned, contractor operated) deal. Under a typical fee-for-service agreement, the contractor would both own and operate the aircraft.
The contractor support for the Shadow probably will be temporary, until the Army trains enough of its own UAV operators, Reid said. “I think it’s part of the growing pains associated with embracing a new technology,” he added. “Right now, the Army is having trouble just training the number of soldiers necessary to field all the various pieces of equipment.”
Other companies, such as Boeing, have employees who operate reconnaissance UAVs for the Navy and Marines.
Reid believes the business model could catch on in the United States because most emergency-response and research agencies lack the resources to acquire, maintain and operate their own UAVs.
A company such as AAI, which has its own training facility where it teaches employees to operate UAVs, could provide these agencies with access to the technology when needed, Reid said.
The University of Colorado recently paid AAI to outfit its fleet of Aerosonde Mark 4 UAVs with instruments that capture data on wind currents. AAI employees flew four aircraft over Antarctica for more than 130 hours.
The company has also operated UAVs for NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Reid said. “We’re working now to see what’s the right business model, but we recognize that for most federal agencies it’s a huge investment to do the acquisition, as well as the maintenance.”
Whether the fee-for-service — or any UAV business model — takes hold in the United States will also depend on the standards that the Federal Aviation Administration sets for UAV flight in national airspace. So far, the FAA has in place tight restrictions out of concern that a UAV could collide with a commercial aircraft.
Officials at a recent conference of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International didn’t have kind words for the administration.
Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, director of army aviation in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, asked audience members: “Does anybody here work airspace for the FAA?”
No hands. “Good,” he said. “I believe strongly there is a known requirement for unmanned aerial systems for non-military uses,” he continued. “It’s going to grow and grow and grow and grow.”
He urged the FAA to relax its standards before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down. All the remotely piloted aircraft currently overseas will return to U.S. bases, and the military will want to increase the amount of training here.
“We will be bringing these vehicles back … and training over your homes and in your cities, so we better be ready,” he said.
For its part, the FAA has said industry has lagged in its ability to develop adequate sense-and-avoid technologies to prevent collisions. The agency must also set standards for command-and-control systems meant to ensure that hackers can’t corrupt the communications link between UAVs and their operators.
But industry leaders said the FAA is moving at a snail’s pace. “We’ve been working with the FAA for 12 years, and we’re not that much farther than when we started,” said Frank Pace, General Atomics’ executive vice president for UAV development and promotion. “I think there’s not a sense of urgency in the country when it comes to unmanned aircraft, and we’re going to lose our lead if we don’t do something about it.”
Reid said AAI has been working with the Army to test sense-and-avoid cameras that could be embedded in the wings of Shadow UAVs. They use polarized light to identify objects.