Drones Over U.S. Soil Still Years Away, Despite Congressional Mandate

By Dan Parsons
The Federal Aviation Administration has less than a year left to meet its congressionally mandated 2015 deadline for clearing drones to fly over U.S. soil.

Though steps have been made in that direction recently, the FAA has consistently missed previous deadlines in the process to unlock a potential economic bonanza that unmanned aircraft could unleash. Given that drones cannot yet detect and avoid buildings or trees, much less other aircraft, it’s unlikely Amazon will be delivering packages with quadcopters anytime soon.

As has occurred with many deadlines Congress levied on the FAA, the recent publication of the administration’s unmanned aerial systems integration “roadmap” released Nov. 7 was a year late. It outlined an integration strategy that will not allow drones to fly alongside commercial aircraft until the end of the decade. The recent designation of six unmanned aerial systems test sites was to take place within 180 days of the Aug. 12, 2012 passing of the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act, but didn’t occur for 18 months.

Many of the technologies necessary to allow drones to safely fly alongside manned, commercial aircraft are still under development, and federal policies to regulate the aircraft and certify pilots have lagged, said engineers familiar with the efforts.

Drones already are flown over the United States, but below 400 feet and within sight of the pilot. That standard, which mirrors the strictures placed on hobby aircraft, is not likely to change for years.

“Although aviation regulations have been developed generically for all aircraft, until recently these efforts were not done with UAS specifically in mind,” the roadmap said. “This presents certain challenges because the underlying assumptions that existed during the previous efforts may not now fully accommodate UAS operations.”

Some of the necessary regulatory clarifications are arcane, such as security requirements for certain elements of aircraft. For example, current standards require that an airplane cockpit have certain safety features, the roadmap said. But where is the “cockpit” of an unmanned aircraft?

“This presents a challenge for UAS considering that the cockpit or ‘control station’ may be located in an office building, in a vehicle or outside with no physical boundaries,” the document said.

The FAA grants special permits to companies seeking to fly drones over the United States, but the process to achieve a waiver is cumbersome and often prohibitively expensive for small manufacturers, Jeremy Novarra, co-owner of Vanilla Aircraft, complained at a 2013 meeting of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

As of August, the FAA had issued 114 special airworthiness certificates to 22 different models of civil aircraft, more than half of which are unmanned. The pilots that fly them currently are certified with the same methods used to test manned-aircraft pilots, but specific regulations will likely be developed for pilots of different classes of unmanned aircraft, the roadmap said.

“Because of many distinct differences between UAS and manned aircraft, there are [also] required technologies that must be matured to enable the safe and seamless integration of UAS in the [National Airspace],” the roadmap said. “Research will be focused in the areas of sense and avoid, control and communications, and human factors.”

The first step to surmounting those technological hurdles was taken at the 11th hour of 2013 when the FAA named six UAS test sites Dec. 30. Engineers at the sites — in North Dakota, Alaska, Virginia, Texas, Nevada and New York — will each study specific technological challenges associated with the safe operation of drones within U.S. airspace. That decision was to be made within the second half of 2012.

Michael Tuscano, president and CEO of the Association of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles International, called the announcement an “important milestone on the path toward unlocking the potential of unmanned aircraft.”

“From advancing scientific research and responding to natural disasters to locating missing persons and helping to fight wildfires, UAS can save time, save money and, most importantly, save lives,” he said in a statement outlining the likely civil and commercial future uses of drones. “In designating the first UAS test sites in these states, the FAA has taken an important step toward recognizing the incredible economic and job creation potential this technology brings.”

AUVSI’s economic outlook for commercial drone technology projects that their integration into the national airspace will create more than 100,000 jobs and generate more than $82 billion in economic impact in the first decade following integration.

The range of jobs created will include pilots, teachers and instructors, machinists, aircraft mechanics, software developers and electrical engineers, to name only a few.

Robert Becklund, president of the Northern Plains Unmanned Systems Authority, which oversaw North Dakota’s efforts to be designated an FAA test site, said integration will spark an explosion of economic activity in that state’s booming agriculture and fossil fuel industries.

“In addition to agricultural surveying, exploring areas affected by natural disasters and helping with search-and-rescue efforts, the safe integration of unmanned systems into the national airspace will lead to a wide variety of other commercial applications,” Becklund said. “Unmanned aircraft have the potential to be less expensive and more efficient than manned aircraft in many instances.”

Nevada officials said in a prepared statement that the state’s selection as a test site would create thousands of jobs with an average annual salary of $62,000. In total, that state could be looking at a $2.5 billion economic windfall that will generate $125 million in annual state and local tax revenue.

Toscano lauded the FAA for meeting the test site and roadmap benchmarks.

“Our hope is this will lead to the creation of more sites and eventually to full integration of UAS into our skies, which will help create lasting jobs and boost the U.S. economy,” he said.

Many technologies, such as sense-and-avoid systems, that are necessary for drones to operate safely around structures and other aircraft, are ready to be installed, said William Semke, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of North Dakota. The university is a hotbed of UAS research and will help administer the state’s FAA test site.

“The systems that are most mature now are used in precision agriculture,” Semke said. “Multispectral cameras that gather information on plant health are very mature. But search-and-rescue technologies and sense–and-avoid technologies also are becoming more advanced and more miniaturized every day.”

The university has tested several sense-and-avoid systems aboard some of its Cessna training aircraft. The systems were able to anticipate a possible collision and alter course with no input from a pilot. Development of avoidance technology began in 2006 at NDU with a 30-pound system that relegated its use to large aircraft. In a little more than seven years, the computer has been reduced to under a pound and can be attached to any UAS that has a capacity greater than that.

Similar feats of miniaturization are occurring in nearly all technologies necessary for safe and efficient drone operation, Semke said.

“The biggest challenge is proving these technologies and having them accepted for wide use in aircraft,” he said. “Once you develop and prove a technology, you can always find someone who is working on other research that will help miniaturize it. The technologies exist that will allow unmanned systems to sense and avoid other aircraft and trees and everything. They just need to be refined, proven and made small enough.”

Manned commercial aircraft already carry many of the technologies that the FAA says are necessary for safe drone integration, said Michael Corcoran, UAS course manager at NDU and a former military pilot of both helicopters and winged aircraft. Corcoran called sense-and-avoid a “wicked problem,” but one that is surmountable.

“We’re not seeing anything in unmanned aircraft that we haven’t already been doing in manned aircraft for 30, 40 or 50 years,” Corcoran said. “The only difference is that [there is no] human bag of Jell-O sitting in the cockpit.”

Besides sense and avoid, the FAA has called for the development of sound communication links that cannot be hacked and are resilient to other forms of disruption. The roadmap also requires that each system have automated procedures for landing or self-destruction if a pilot does lose control of an unmanned aircraft.

“We can safely fly unmanned aircraft now,” Corcoran added. “I understand why it is important to get this stuff right, but we need to get the regulations on the books so we can start using all these technologies.”

Those regulations — metrics for UAS control stations, airframes, and control systems and propulsion — should have been in place by the end of 2013, but have not been released by the FAA. Still, the administration hopes to have a certification process for drones for civil use in place by the end of the year, by which time the requirements for pilots and crewmembers of small UASs, including health and training standards, must be published.
The document includes a 2017 deadline for certification of large and high-altitude unmanned aircraft. The full integration envisioned by Congress – with unmanned aircraft sharing the skies with jetliners — remains a distant goal that will be realized in 2020 at the soonest. It is not expected that sense-and-avoid technology will be adequate to allow drones out of sight of pilots until then, the document said.

“The FAA’s near-term focus will be on safely allowing for the expanded operation of UAS through accommodation,” the roadmap said. “The … goal for enabling routine public operation of all UAS is also expected for 2015.”

Before 2020, the FAA’s focus will shift from accommodation of existing drones to comprehensive integration, the roadmap said.

Integration efforts will focus on sequentially developing and implementing the UAS system requirements established by the FAA as a result of research and development performed at the six test sites.

These midterm goals include finalizing policy and safety and technological standards to further ensure safe operation of drones within populated areas and around aircraft that carry passengers. The administration also will seek to address concerns over the implications of drones on privacy, national security and the environment.

In the end, the FAA wants to establish a streamlined process to continue the integration of new UAS designs as they are developed and as new uses are found for them. The authors of the roadmap admit that finding an efficient regulatory structure is a “challenge.”                             

Topics: Procurement, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.