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Micro-Aircraft Declared Safe to Fly in U.S. Skies (UPDATED) 

12  2,013 

By Stew Magnuson 



One of the first hand-launched unmanned aerial vehicles fielded in Iraq is now being offered to local law enforcement and government agencies after it received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly in domestic airspace.

The Nighthawk IV micro UAS is the fourth iteration of the aircraft that was first flown in Iraq in 2003. Hundreds made it to war zones, where soldiers could launch the two-pound aircraft with the flick of the wrist. The Raven, manufactured by AeroVironment, eventually supplanted them on the battlefield.

The Nighthawk’s maker, Albuquerque, N.M.-based Applied Research Associates Inc., recently obtained a certificate of authorization (COA) from the FAA, which certifies that it is airworthy, said Bob Quinn, the company’s unmanned security systems division manager.

ARA is better known for research and development projects for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The company is now moving toward selling products as well, Quinn said.

The COA means that the firm can sell the Nighthawk to local law enforcement, and federal agencies as well as universities. These entities must also apply for a certificate to let the FAA know where they intend to fly the aircraft. But with the documentation in hand, that process should take less than 60 days, Quinn said.

Receiving the COA for the aircraft itself was no easy task, Quinn said. The agency still has not released new rules for small and micro-sized remotely piloted aircraft.

“Our small aircraft was treated just like a 747,” he said.

For example, the Nighthawk had to get a waiver so it wasn’t required to carry its flight manual inside the aircraft.

Regulations also said a tail number had to be a certain size, which would have been about ten-times larger than the aircraft itself, Quinn said.

“Regulations haven’t caught up with small, let alone, micro-UASs,” Quinn said.

The customer won’t have to go through that onerous process. The FAA will just want to know: “‘Where are you going to fly?’ and ‘How close are you to congested airspace?’” Quinn said.

The Nighthawk can carry a variety of cameras and sensors, including standard infrared and electro-optical, a camera that specializes in tracking people and sensors to detect radiation or hazardous chemicals.

“As the population ages, there are more and more elderly with dementia or Alzheimer’s who are wandering away,” Quinn noted. The company believes there will be a market for the aircraft with local police and first responders, which carry out search-and-rescue operations. One plane and a controller cost about $50,000.

The problem with the police and first responder market is that it is fractionalized. Each agency usually buys one or two systems. Bulk buys come with large federal agencies such as the military or Customs and Border Protection. But CBP has been a hard sell lately, Quinn said.

Correction: In a previous version of this story, the name of the company, Applied Research Associates, was incorrect.

Photo Credit: Applied Research Associates Inc.
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