The advent of unmanned aerial vehicles taking flight within U.S. national airspace could mean an enormous economic windfall for aviation entrepreneurs and the nation’s economy.
But a booming domestic UAV industry is desperately trying to break free of strict rules that will keep their designs grounded until 2015 at the earliest. UAV advocates are finding their message difficult to deliver, with widespread assumptions that lethal war machines will buzz their neighborhoods. Other opposition camps view the aircraft as a Big Brother technology that will bring prying eyes into citizen’s homes.
While drones have been proven effective as a weapon of war, they have been used for that purpose predominantly over areas of the world with little or no commercial air traffic. But in less restrictive countries, unmanned aircraft are already an established tool aiding farmers, first responders and fishermen.
By learning from those countries, namely Japan, advocates for UAV integration insist that the technology will pour billions of dollars into the U.S. economy in just a few years. But companies chafing under current Federal Aviation Administration restrictions are uncertain that the agency will work out the kinks by the 2015 deadline set by the Obama Administration.
“There is a perception in the industry that the process is moving slowly,” said Chris Mailey, vice president of knowledge resources with the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “Certainly we would like to have had it done yesterday, but the FAA must do it safely. In that sense, it is perfectly understandable that they are taking their time.”
AUVSI projects an $82.1 billion infusion into the U.S. economy over the 10 years following 2015, the year the Federal Aviation Administration is supposed to have rules in place governing UAVs in national airspace. Agricultural applications of UAVs alone could pump $75.6 billion into the economy over the decade, according to an optimistic report published by AUVSI in March.
Public safety and “other applications,” like natural resource management, will produce $3.2 billion each, the report claimed.
The industry is projected to create just over 100,000 jobs during the same period, two-thirds of which will spring up in the first three years after integration. Many of those jobs will be manufacturing positions that pay more than $40,000 annually.
Mailey said the study, compiled using several academic reports, was a conservative estimate of the impact UAS integration would have once the FAA opens up the national airspace.
To illustrate their point, Mailey and other advocates for integration point to Japan, where an aging farming population has been using small unmanned helicopters to manage their crops for decades.
When the Japanese government about 20 years ago realized its farming population was at risk of growing too old for the work required, officials approached Yamaha Motor Corporation about developing vehicles that could make farming more efficient.
Four years later, it had the R-MAX unmanned helicopter, which has been in wide use for more than 15 years. The remotely piloted aircraft is nine feet long, with 12-foot rotors and stands four feet tall. Running on a 20-horsepower, two-stroke engine, it can carry up to 61 pounds of seed, fertilizer, pesticide or water.
An autonomous version, which is not used for agriculture, was used to monitor disaster relief and cleanup efforts at the Fukushima nuclear power plant damaged in last year’s earthquake and tsunami, said Steve Markofski, a corporate planner with Yamaha’s U.S. division.
Markofski oversaw tests of the unmanned helicopter in Lost Hills and Oakville, Calif. in November, where the R-MAX would be ideally suited for spraying short-rowed crops.
“For places like these that grow grapes, almonds and pistachios, this system will perform very well, and we are confident the technology will catch on,” he said.
Under current FAA regulations, such flights for agricultural purposes are assumed to be legal, though interpretation of the rules remains subjective.
The FAA has allowed limited UAS flights within the national airspace since 1990. The aircraft were given permission to monitor wildfires in California but only in controlled conditions and in areas with low air traffic density, for instance. Unmanned aircraft also aided in the disaster relief effort launched after a massive earthquake rocked Haiti in 2010.
As it stands, non-governmental entities have three options for flying unmanned aircraft within U.S. civil airspace. Companies can obtain an experimental airway certificate if they can document the flights are for research and development, training or flight demonstration. Another method is to obtain a type-design certification through existing rules that govern the use of manned aircraft.
But owners of small aeronautics firms that design and build small UAVs argue those permitted processes are labyrinthine and prohibitively costly in both time and cash. So far, only two companies of the hundreds in the industry are pursuing type-design certification, Williams said.
A third and perhaps even more confounding classification under which remotely piloted aircraft are allowed to fly in domestic airspace is as a modeler. Because the flights are not used for any commercial, for-profit purpose, “hobbyists” are allowed to fly up to 400 feet high as long as they are away from airports and the aircraft remains within line of sight. That they cannot be “operated for profit” is most confusing to UAV entrepreneurs.
“You can’t claim to be a modeler then sell the pictures you took of Beyonce,” Williams joked at AUVSI.
The humor was lost on some executives in the audience who would like to fly their designs for research, just as farmers are allowed to fly them to monitor or dust crops. Tempers flare because the former is considered by the FAA as inherently commercial, while farmers and hobbyists are routinely given the go ahead.
The double standard was not lost on Jeremy Novarra, co-owner of Vanilla Aircraft.
“If a farmer, who hopefully is profit-minded … can fly as a hobbyist, why can’t I, as the owner of an unmanned aircraft company, fly as a hobbyist my own aircraft over property that I own?” Novarra pressed Williams.
Williams demurred, falling back on FAA regulations that disallow commercial UAV flights within U.S. airspace and offering experimental certificates as a viable option.
“Everyone knows the experimental certificate process is available, but not actually functional,” Novarra shot back. “It’s not happening any more … especially not [for] the multitude of unmanned aircraft companies that are out there.”
The FAA has the authority to levy fines against commercial entities that violate its rules regarding UAV flights. It has done so most notably against real estate agents in Los Angeles using UAVs to survey property, said Mailey. Australia, for instance, already allows real estate inspections with UAV-mounted cameras and sensors.
Williams declined to split hairs over what was and wasn’t “commercial activity,” but companies are eager for an explanation, and many have perceived the FAA’s swift action against UAV activity by private companies as heavy handed and unnecessary.
There are some significant hurdles to jump before the 2015 deadline, which Mailey said was an overly optimistic date. The most readily apparent is the issue of safety. Once UAVs are flying over the United States, some of which can fly as high as 50,000 feet, they will be sharing the same air at the same altitudes as private and commercial air traffic. The technology does not yet exist that would allow a UAV to sense and avoid other objects and aircraft, creating an obvious safety concern.
Because of the perceived danger and other considerations, some local jurisdictions and state legislatures have taken up the issue. Charlottesville, Va., is one of several local jurisdictions that have preempted UAS integration with restrictions on their use.
Meanwhile, police in Arlington, Texas, have permission to fly small, four-foot remotely piloted helicopters throughout the city to photograph crime scenes and search for suspects. But the aircraft will be restricted to flying within the FAA’s hobbyist guidelines.
Border state law enforcement agencies are already using quad-rotor aircraft to police illegal migration within the same restrictions.
Similar systems have been tested in Houston and Miami. All of those agencies also operate UAVs under an FAA certificate of authorization, of which around 300 have been issued.
Government agencies also are using unmanned aircraft for more than law enforcement and border patrol. NASA has a parallel five-year, $150 million UAS integration program and in early April flew a hand-launched Dragon Eye UAV into a volcanic plume in Costa Rica.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been testing AeroVironment Pumas and Boeing-Insitu ScanEagles for tasks such as monitoring weather and oil spills and is a partner in NASA’s work to use Global Hawks to study hurricanes.
The ScanEagle was originally designed to help fishermen track schools of fish, but is now used heavily by the U.S. military. That most people closely associate UAVs with the military is one of many obstacles to their use in civil airspace.
“When people think about these aircraft, they immediately see a big armed Predator, or an unarmed military aircraft with a very powerful camera,” Mailey said. “But you don’t need to have a big missile to monitor crops or a wildfire. There are already rules about arming civilian aircraft in U.S. airspace.”
Unlike military unmanned aircraft, the systems most likely to be used by public safety agencies are small — most weighing less than five pounds — with limited flight duration.
Anyone flying a UAS outside current hobbyist guidelines will be required to pass the same certification as a pilot of a manned aircraft. When that restriction is inappropriate for a particular aircraft or situation, the FAA “will adapt,” Williams said.
The longstanding prohibition of arming civilian aircraft also will carry over to UAVs, he said.
Another hurdle, and one that could prove to be a more challenging obstacle than technological shortcomings, is one of public perception.
FAA has no authority to enforce privacy violations, but is encouraging industry to adopt strict and clear regulations against the improper use of UAS technologies, Williams said.
This issue is compounded by a pervasive sense that drones will be used to peer into law-abiding citizens homes or gather information on them without their consent.
When ordinary citizens think of drones, they conjure images of Predators firing missiles at insurgents in Afghanistan, or Reapers gathering thermal-imaging footage of a faraway battlefield. Neither are activities that are welcome in the United States, as evidenced by the grilling suffered by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan during their confirmation hearings earlier this year on whether the president would arm military drones over U.S. soil.
Industry officials understand such fears exist, but insist they are unfounded.
“The industry fully understands the technology is new to many Americans, and their opinions are being formed by what they see in the news,” AUVSI President and CEO Michael Tuscano testified before the Senate judiciary committee in March. “As we focus on the use of UAS by law enforcement, it is important to recognize the robust legal framework already in place, rooted in the Fourth Amendment to our Constitution and decades of case law, which regulates how law enforcement uses any technology – whether it is unmanned aircraft, manned aircraft, thermal imaging, GPS or cell phones.”
Ultimately, it is not illegal to fly UAVs in U.S. civil airspace, but potential pilots must meet all the regulations governing manned aircraft, including the ability to sense and avoid other aircraft. Even when the FAA works out a plan for integration, it is impossible to guarantee they are safe.
“It is nearly impossible to collect the amount of data necessary to make a definitive statement that UAVs are safe in the national airspace,” Mailey said.
Photo Credit: Thinkstock, NASA