The military use of unmanned aerial systems as tools for surveillance and weapons delivery is well known. Can these systems find a place in the civil world? Robert W. Moorman investigates.
Washington D.C is to politics what Las Vegas is to gambling. And there is always some controversy swirling around the nation’s capital. One issue bandied about these days is the commercial, domestic use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones, as they are commonly known. Privacy advocates raise concerns about how UAS will be used, while the industry tries to educate the public and lawmakers on the real business and public service value of unmanned systems.
So exercised are some US citizens about the domestic use of drones that Deer Trail, Colorado is proposing to allow its folk to shoot down small UAS used for surveillance. A $100 bounty would be given to hunters that bring in the UAS remains.
Adding to those concerns is the unrelated revelation that the US National Security Agency unlawfully collected thousands of electronic communications and emails between Americans as part of its search for terrorist activity. Members of the US Congress have received numerous calls from constituents and privacy advocates on the civil use of UAS. Some people believe that large UAS, such as the Predator and Global Hawk, used in war zones and to patrol US borders, could be used to spy on Americans.
“There are a lot of unfounded fears about military systems being used domestically,” said Ben Gielow, general counsel for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), which held in annual convention this summer in Washington D.C. “That is not the case.” Nevertheless, “a lot of work needs to be done about what is the commercial UAS industry, how it will be used, and how FAA will regulate it,” he said.
Most UAS being built for commercial use these days weigh less than 50 pounds and don’t have the range or sophisticated surveillance equipment used by military drones.
Civil Uses There are numerous potential civil uses for UAS that have nothing to do with spying on law-abiding citizens. Among them: agriculture monitoring; disaster management; wildfire mapping; law enforcement; telecommunications; weather monitoring; aerial imaging/mapping; environmental monitoring; television news coverage and movie making; oil and gas exploration and thermal infrared power line surveys. Seventy-five percent of attendees at AUVSI’s convention were associated with the commercial UAS industry.
Precision agriculture and public safety are considered the more promising areas for the civil use of UAS, according to AUVSI’s economic report. Integrating UAS into the National Airspace System (NAS) will generate $13.6 billion in the first three years of integration and $82.1 billion between 2015 and 2025, the study states. More than 70,000 new jobs will be created in the first three years of integration, more than 100,000 by 2025.
The FAA Modernization Reform Act of 2012 mandates that the FAA develops regulatory and training standards for commercial use of UAS by 2015. (See sidebar) One provision states that the FAA must allow for commercial, small UAVs to fly over the Arctic Ocean beyond the line of site.
Standards Before commercial operations may begin over US air space, the FAA needs to create operational, technical and safety standards. The agency has a tremendous challenge ahead “when you consider the complexity of unmanned systems in terms of command and control, detect and avoid technology and the ability to coexist in unrestricted airspace,” said ALPA First Vice President Sean Cassidy, who spoke at the AUVSI’s Convention.
Cassidy said a set of licensing standards, training methodologies and medical certification standards for the UAS pilot — similar to what exists for professional pilots — is needed before UAS is integrated into the same airspace as commercial airliners.
At present, RTCA, which develops technical guidance for use by federal regulatory agencies, is developing guidelines for detect and avoid as well as what to do when communications is lost between a ground station and an unmanned aircraft.
Ground-based operators of UAS don’t necessarily need to be commercial licensed pilots, but training must be similar. “If they are going to coexist in the same airspace we’re flying commercial airliners, they should meet the same training standards we have to meet,” said Cassidy.
According to industry experts, there are two distinct groups of civil UAS. One group consists of the larger complex systems that will eventually fly at various altitudes in the NAS, including Class A airspace. The other group is the sUAS that will operate in uncontrolled airspace at or below 400 feet AGL, which the FAA now allows on a limited basis.
The FAA was to have selected six test tests for UAS commercial use in 2012, but the announcement was held up due to privacy concerns, said the agency. The FAA now expects the announcement by the end of 2013, but that is not certain. Congress said that climate and geographic diversity need to be considered when selecting the sites. The FAA said it received 25 proposals from 24 states. Attending AUVSI’s convention were representatives from Florida, Nevada, Oklahoma, Arizona, North Dakota and Utah.
The FAA’s limited approval for commercial use of two drones off the coast of Alaska opens the door to a lucrative commercial UAS market. One drone, an AeroVironment Inc. Puma AE is providing oil spill monitoring and wild life observation on behalf of ConocoPhilips in the Beaufort Sea. The other UAS, manufactured by Boeing Co.’s Insitu ScanEagle is monitoring migrating whales and ice flows.
“We’re leveraging our experience in military systems technologies to create products for civilian market,” said Gabriel Torres, Project/Program Manager and Chief Engineer at AeroVironment.
Up until recently, non-military or law enforcement related government agencies were the only ones operating UAS. The US Geological Survey is using AeroVironment Ravens for monitoring of bird populations, erosion control, mapping and firefighting.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which monitors the oceans and atmosphere, are using the Puma AE for wildlife monitoring.
AeroVironment also manufacturers the hover-capable CUBE unmanned system. The Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Office in North Dakota is one of the first law enforcement agencies to operate the CUBE over 16 counties in the Northeast corner of North Dakota. The Raven is also used for the US Army, the WASP for the Air Force Special Operations and Dragon Eye for the Marine Corps.
At present, the FAA allows small UAS to operate up to 400 feet above ground level and within ¾ mile line of sight. Even with these constraints, law enforcement is able to use UAS to conduct search and rescue and as a surveillance tool for suspected criminal activity.
Trainers Ready Colleges, universities and independent schools are a lot further along in educating future UAS pilots and engineers, despite the lack of regulatory guidance from authorities and public support.
Embry-Riddle and the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences at the University of North Dakota have UAS curriculum’s that will provide degreed pilots and engineers of unmanned systems to work in the commercial industry.
Embry-Riddle, which has been training pilots since 1926, began offering pilot training of unmanned systems three years ago. As of Fall 2013, Embry-Riddle will offer undergraduate major and minor programs of UAS, plus a new Master of Science in Unmanned & Autonomous Systems Engineering (MSUASE), said Alex Mirot, Program Coordinator and Assistant Professor, Unmanned Aircraft Systems at ERAU’s Daytona, Fla. campus. Embry-Riddle said the program could be the only one of its kind dealing with unmanned systems for air, land and sea.
“We’re looking for people coming into the program that are interested in unmanned air, ground and sea vehicles with a background in engineering,” said Richard Stansbury (Ph.D.), associate professor, computer engineering and science at ERAU. Stansbury is coordinating the implementation of the Master of Science in Unmanned & Autonomous Systems Engineering program.
The majority of Master degree candidates, he said, received undergraduate degrees in traditional mechanical, computer, software and aerospace engineering.
The MSUAUSE program will develop engineers by covering UAS controls, the variety of unmanned systems platforms for aircraft, ground and sea. It prepares students to design, develop and support UASs, ranging from remote control to full autonomy. International students are allowed to enroll in MSAUSE program with the exception of those from the so-called T-6 countries, such as North Korea, Iran and the Sudan, among others. Candidates for the pilot/operator program must be US citizens.
The need for UAS pilots and engineers extends beyond North America. “Overseas, we’re seeing a growing need for unmanned systems, such as in wildlife conservation and tracking herds in Africa, as well as in mining and photogrammetry,” said Mirot.
In 2009, The University of North Dakota’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences unveiled its Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics program with a degree in UAS operations. First class graduated in 2011.
“We felt early on that unmanned systems were going to be a large segment of the future of aviation,” remembered Ben Trapnell, associate professor at the School of Aerospace Sciences. “Consequently, we needed to be out front with education and training.”
UND’s undergraduate program combines the commercial pilot license track with six UAS courses. All the students are commercial multi-engine rated fixed-wing pilots or commercial instrument rated helicopter pilots, said Trapnell.
Courses include: introduction to UAS; systems of unmanned aircraft; ground systems of unmanned aircraft; communications and telemetry systems; and remote sensing. The last course gives students 70 hours of time on the Boeing Insitu ScanEagle simulator, produced by Corsair Engineering. In May 2013, UND acquired three multi-mission, Multi-platform UAS (IM3PUT) systems trainers and two IM3PUT Instructor Operator Stations (IOS).
UND set two major goals when they unveiled the UAS undergraduate program. Prospective UAS pilots “needed to understand the environment in which they would operate,” said Trapnell, referring to the US National Airspace System.
Second, he said, “we wanted to bridge the gap between the engineer and the pilot,” who might not fully understand automation technology.
Trapnell believes that agriculture will be one of the chief beneficiaries of UAS. Trapnell’s farmer son-in-law, who cultivates over 25,000 acres of land, is looking for a way to oversee his crops to determine which fields need to be watered and/or fertilized. A small, low-cost UAS would provide a tremendous dollar savings and be more efficient, said the professor. The only way to get that information presently is by satellite imagery or walking the fields.
Blacksburg, Va.-based Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, better known as Virginia Tech, has a UAS related Masters of Science and Engineering program, but does not include all modes of UAS transportation modes.
Kansas State University School of Aviation, Salina campus, offers a Bachelor of Science in UAS. According to its website, the mission of K-State - Salina is to “facilitate and promote the safe incorporation of UAS into the NAS above Kansas and beyond.” Through the UAS program, students learn operational guidelines, policies for UAS flying, as well as how to operate UAS.
Veteran aviator and instructor John La Roche is the Director of the Montreal-based industry service department of CQFA, the aviation school of Chicoutimi College located in Saint-Honoré. CQFA Montreal offers 54 on-demand courses, mostly geared toward aviation management. A lot of Canadian government employees have attended.
In October 2013, CQFA Montreal will launch a tuition free, 130-hour light drone ab initio pilot’s course. The course consists of one week of e-learning (18.5 hours), one week ground school (44.5 hours) and one week of hands-on training, where students assemble and disassemble a light-weight, hover capable UAS owned by the Centre de Géomatique du Québec.
The hands-on training consists of 25 hours of e-simulator time and 42 hours of practice, which includes 21 hours of workshop time. Students get a CD from the college for e-learning and must buy a joystick to engage the online simulator.
UAS makers also offer training. AeroVironment provides a web-based operations course, which comes with a simulator feature that allows the students to practice flying the UAS. The online course is followed by a two-day course where students learn to fly an actual AeroVironment UAS. AeroVironment provides on-site training for the student UAS pilot.
The FAA predicts that 30,000 drones will fly over America in the next 20 years. But unless the US government and industry allays privacy concerns, and the FAA implements workable regulations for the civil use of UAS, that number is likely to be significantly lower.
Sidebar – 325 words
Waiting for FAA Like Godot, the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) industry waits on the FAA. The agency must issue regulations for the domestic commercial use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) by 2015, and satisfy privacy concerns, before the industry can ever emerge from limbo and grow.
The FAA declined CAT’s request to interview Jim Williams, who heads up the agency’s UAS Integration Office. It did, however, provide answers to our questions, which reveal that some progress is being made toward jump starting the commercial UAS business. Not counting hobby and recreational use, there are three ways currently to obtain before 2015 FAA approval to operate UAS domestically. The first is to obtain a special airworthiness experimental certification sector for UAS aircraft for “private sector aircraft for research and development, training and flight demonstrations.”
Second: operators can get a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (CoA) for public (government) aircraft.
Third: Operators can obtain a type certification coupled with a Certificate of Authorization and Waiver (COWA),
To achieve the Final Rule, the FAA is examining a host of certification requirements for UAS crewmember/pilot, including associated medical requirements, experience in manned aviation, authorized public and civil UAS operations as well as recommendations for small UAS (sUAS) commercial use by the Aviation Rulemaking Committee.
“We plan to mirror certification requirements for manned aviation [for UAS operations] where it makes sense, and introduce difference approaches to certification, currency and training as needed.”
The FAA would use the same approach with medical requirements, mirroring certification requirements for manned aviation if it makes sense “or adapt where it does not.”
The FAA declined to speculate on how the requirements will be implemented because it is currently developing a sUAS rulemaking proposal. The FAA said integrating UAS into the National Airspace System (NAS) would be “incremental.” The plan is to release the Notice for Proposed Rulemaking for sUAS in 2014. Longer term, the FAA intends to integrate UAS into the NextGen NAS.