When it comes to unmanned aircraft systems, the U.S. is falling behind, panelists at the recent National Business Aviation Association’s convention in Orlando told attendees during two seminars on unmanned aircraft.
The rest of the world – especially, Israel, Australia and Canada – is moving faster with the commercial use of unmanned aircraft, they said, and have relaxed prohibitions against their use.
Japan has been using unmanned aircraft systems for the past 20 years for crop dusting and precision agriculture.
“We are sliding behind,” Rose Mooney, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership at Virginia Tech, told a standing-room only crowd during one of two panel discussions at NBAA’s annual convention held recently at the Orlando Convention Center.
The University of North Dakota was asked to put together a training program for Spain, but it didn’t come together because of all the regulatory issues, said Al Palmer, director for the Center of UAS research at the university.
The center lost the work to another country, Palmer said.
Currently commercial use of unmanned systems is prohibited in U.S. airspace, although UAS – also called UAV’s or drones – can be flown by hobbyists under certain conditions.
The Federal Aviation Administration is working on the rules and regulations to integrate drones into the airspace.
The agency says it is close to issuing a proposed ruling for the commercial use of small UAS, aircraft that weigh less than 55 pounds. Those are expected to be out by the end of the year for low-risk controlled environments.
In the meantime, the FAA has received 91 applications for exceptions to its prohibition on drones, and it has approved several of them.
When the regulations are issued, opportunities for business will open up, said Brad Hayden, president and CEO of Robotic Skies, during the panel discussion. Robotic Skies is a network of service centers that provide certification, maintenance and repair for the emerging commercial drone fleet, the company said.
Unmanned aircraft will be used for film-making, crop dusting, rural medical services and many other purposes, panelists said.
They will be able to do jobs that humans would consider dull, dangerous or dirty.
Opportunity knocks softly, Palmer said.
“So you’ve got to be ready for it,” he said.
Palmer challenged attendees of the discussion to look at unmanned aircraft to see how they may be applied to their businesses.
Students at the University of North Dakota are intrigued with the technology.
Unmanned aircraft systems promise to change the aviation industry in the same way the jet engine did, Palmer said.
“I suggest you embrace the technology,” he said. “Don’t be afraid of it.”
Over the next decade, the $13 billion industry is expected to expand to more than $140 billion with thousands of jobs, the panelists said.
The Teal Group, however, estimated that UAV manufacturing for 2014 will total $3.3 billion. That’s up from $2.6 billion in 2009. It expects $54.1 billion in UAV deliveries between through 2023. That’s small when compared to deliveries of manned aircraft , which is expected to total $1.88 trillion during the same time frame, it said.
Unmanned aircraft vehicles basically came from nowhere, Teal Group aviation consultant Richard Aboulafia wrote in a report to clients.
Some technologies, such as elevators, air conditioners and cellphones, create entirely new markets. Others, such as electric locomotives, hybrid cars and smartphones, replace or supplant existing technologies and products.
They may stimulate existing markets, but they don’t create new ones.
“UAV’s have created an all-new market,” Aboulafia wrote. “Very few aeronautical products have done that.”
Today, unmanned aircraft are flying under controlled conditions, performing border and port surveillance, helping with scientific research and environmental monitoring, supporting public safety, helping state universities conduct research and supporting other missions for government entities.
In September, the FAA granted exemptions to six movie and TV production companies, allowing them to use unmanned aircraft in their businesses.
The firms said operators will hold private pilot certificates, keep the aircraft in sight at all times and restrict flights to the “sterile area” on the sets.
The FAA also requires an inspection of the aircraft before each flight and prohibits night operations.
The FAA is considering 40 other requests for exemptions from other commercial businesses.
Hurdles to overcome
There are hurdles to overcome with UAS technology and integration, the panelists said.
U.S. airspace can be complex to manage, especially in congested areas.
“The last thing we want to do is hurt somebody,” said panelist Paul McDuffee, vice president of government relations for Insitu, a manufacturer of unmanned aircraft systems.
And technological challenges are many, Mooney said. The industry is looking at sense-and-avoid equipment, smaller radar systems and other technologies, Mooney said.
“I’m fortunate to be in an industry that’s pushing the boundaries,” Mooney said.
There are several key challenges for the industry.
One is to make sure there is a control communications link that maintains contact with the aircraft.
“If (the link) is easily jammed or spoofed, you’re in big trouble,” said David Hamrick, senior technical adviser of Mitre’s FAA resesearch center. Mitre is a nonprofit organization that operates research and development centers sponsored by the federal government, according to its website.
The next challenge is navigation to make sure operators know where they are. If the signal is blocked, that would be a problem, Hamrick said.
Third is surveillance. Many of the aircraft are small and hard to see. And they’re hard to pick up by primary radar, he said.
“It’s all about making your aircraft visible to others,” Hamrick said.
And then there’s the challenge of air traffic management. Flight plans for unmanned aircraft are different from those for manned planes, he said. Unmanned aircraft often stay in the air for long periods of time. They loiter, stay stationary and fly circuits of agriculture fields, he said.
Today’s air traffic management system is not designed to handle that kind of flight plan, Hamrick said.
Questions also have been raised about whether operators should be certificated pilots.
They should at least have special training necessary to understand aviation and airspace, said Ted Wierzbanowski, chairman of the F38 UAS Standards Committee for ASTM, a committee helping shape standards for UAS flight in the U.S., and a panelist.
They need to make sure they don’t fly them near airports, Wierzbanowski said.
Unmanned aerial systems have the ability to save lives, time and money, said panelist Mario Mairena, senior government relations manager at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Mairena said the UAS industry wants to be regulated.
“We have a code of conduct,” he said.
Once the industry develops solutions for its challenges, the panelists said the industry would grow dramatically.
If it doesn’t do it soon, “we’re going to be at an economic disadvantage,” Mairena said.
Interviewed following the NBAA show, Kurt Barnhart, Kansas State University-Salina associate dean of research and engagement and executive director of its Applied Aviation Research Center, disagreed that the U.S. was falling behind in the world of unmanned aircraft.
The U.S. still dominates in military and civilian unmanned aircraft manufacturing and in the equipment, hardware, sensors, payloads, camera systems, autopilot guidance systems and their internal workings, Barnhart said.
“Operationally, it’s easier to get approval (for their use) in other locations outside the U.S., primarily because we have the most complex aircraft system in the world and also the most robust private aviation sector in the world,” he said.
The FAA has a difficult job integrating them into the airspace.
“We had hoped that we would be flying routinely sooner,” he said. But “if we get this wrong, large numbers of people could be impacted negatively. I don’t envy them in their position. It’s extremely complex.”
Private industry has been frustrated that things haven’t moved faster. But they are moving forward, Barnhart said.
In addition to the exemptions granted by the FAA to some operators, the agency also has approved six test sites, Barnhart noted.
And he noted that proposed draft regulations are expected by the end of the year – with a final ruling in another year or so.
K-State has ongoing flight operations that support research projects in and out of the state, he said. As needed, it applies for a certificate of operation to operate unmanned aircraft from the FAA.
The school has been expanding its unmanned aircraft training because of growing interest. Barnhart expects that to expand once regulations are in place.
He expects the FAA to require drone operators to receive some kind of training.
“We do see us playing a role in training,” Barnhart said. “We’ll be poised and positioned to provide that training.”
Right now, there are a lot of unknowns.
“It’s gotten everyone in a flurry,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of start-up companies come and go already. It’s definitely kind of a gold-rush mentality right now. At some point, the industry will settle down into a groove.”