Commercial, Military, Products, Regulatory, Services

Sharing Air: Unmanned Aircraft in Commercial Airspace   

By By Dale Smith | May 1, 2012

Schiebel’s Camcopter S-100 completed its first flight mounted with a Cineflex film camera in April near the company’s headquarters in Vienna, Austria. The camera system was developed in partnership with Brain Farm Digital Cinema and Snaproll Media. Schiebel

With all the press they’ve been receiving for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, you’d think that unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are something totally new and different. The fact is the military has been using remotely piloted aircraft since the late 1950s. Those early “drones” were pretty much like their male honeybee namesakes—they looked and flew like their armed counterparts, but they had no stingers. Created from retired fighters, these remotely piloted aircraft served as live targets for airborne and ground-based weapons training and testing. Their purpose: to be blown out of the sky.

Today’s military UAS is anything as much a simple “drone” as Sikorsky’s X2 is just another helicopter. From flying long-duration surveillance, to delivering cargo, to targeting and launching laser-guided bombs, unmanned aerial systems can do just about anything a manned aircraft can do. Growing in popularity across the board, today unmanned aircraft make up about one-third of U.S. military’s aerial assets.


The expanding roles, reliability and safety of unmanned aircraft and helicopters in theater are, no doubt, the precursor to the introduction of the UAS into America’s National Airspace System.

“There have been leaps and bounds in the technology available today,” explains Ben Gielow, government relations manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). “Domestically, there has been a long push to get unmanned aircraft flying in the national airspace system.” The Department of Defense (DoD), he continues, “has now shown us that the technology has gotten to the point where we know we can safely operate unmanned systems here. Basically, the robotics have grown up and matured.”

David Voss, senior director of unmanned aircraft and control technologies for Rockwell Collins, agrees that technological advancements are a key catalyst. “Right around the turn of the last century there was a point where micro-electronics and micro electromechanical (MEMS) technology reached a point of readiness where they could be used in aviation. For example, we have a triple-redundant system that does its own automatic flight control—takeoff, cruise and landing—total automatic mission execution,” he says.

From a UAS operational perspective, Voss continues, “we have literally launched thousands of these aircraft around the world. [Rockwell Collins] has over a million hours of autonomous flight operations now.” Technology is advancing at a significant rate in terms of reliability, safety, functionality and redundancy solutions, he adds. “The same set of requirements in the end that enable UASs to benefit the warfighter will enable them to benefit commercial operators here.”

Of course, one of the biggest hurdles is the ability of a UAS to “see and avoid” other aircraft. NASA recently took the first major step in proving technology can provide the necessary safety margins by flying an automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B)-equipped Predator B UAS. The ADS-B technology provides detailed positioning, velocity and altitude information to ATC, other ADS-B equipped aircraft and to UAS pilots on the ground.

As these types of technologies mature and are proven to be reliable, Voss and others believe, we’re on the verge of the transition from asking, “Can we find a home for unmanned aerial vehicles in the NAS?” to “What can we do with them?”

Operator Applications

Asking what a UAS is capable of doing in the NAS is like asking how high is up? The answer depends on your perspective.

“I can only speak for the unmanned K-MAX and the lessons learned from flight operation procedures currently being used by the U.S. military in the Middle East,” says Terry Fogarty, general manager of the UAS product group for Kaman Aerospace Corp. “Just this last December the K-MAX did the world’s first cargo delivery with an unmanned aircraft. Today it’s a routine operation over there.”

K-State collaborated with Viking Aerospace to design the Wolverine III, a fully autonomous three-blade electric helicopter with long endurance for use in student training, airspace integration research, and search and rescue. Kansas State University

Once FAA approves UAS operation, he continues, “it’s going to be the commercial operators who will figure out uses that we aren’t even thinking of now. UASs are tools—very capable tools—and the commercial operators are waiting to take advantage of what they can do.”

While the commercial operators will no doubt get creative, there are some general guidelines for how the UAS will be utilized. “Situations where it is dangerous for people are top of mind,” Fogarty said. “Like in Japan last year when they were dropping cement on the nuclear reactor to help stop the leak; that would be perfect for an autonomous or remotely controlled helicopter.”

Other operations tailor-made for UAS support are pipeline patrol, SAR, surveillance, photography, forestry and conservation, “in situations where a pilot’s skills and experience aren’t needed,” he says. “Delivering cargo isn’t necessarily dangerous, but the repetitive flying doesn’t need an experienced military pilot either. The autonomous K-MAX is working out quite well there.”

Kurt Barnhart, director of the Applied Aviation Research Center (UAS Program) for Kansas State University-Salina, said that it was the need to respond to a devastating natural disaster that prompted the development of the university’s UAS program, which is one of the first to offer an undergraduate program for UAS operators and maintainers.

“Five years ago Greensburg, Kan. was wiped off the map by an F5 tornado. At the time most of the Kansas National Guard’s aerial assets were serving overseas. Afterward, the governor was looking for a way to get eyes-in-the-sky at a lower cost. The answer was UAS,” Barnhart explains. “Today, we’re ready to help in any disaster situation. We’ve done a lot of training with the National Guard here in ‘Crisis City’—it’s a mock disaster-training center they operate with the state. The UASs have proven to be very beneficial.”

T-Rex lands at Crisis City. The UAS Club, a student organization, added several systems to an RC helicopter base. Kansas State University

But why use a UAS when you have helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft available? As with most things today, it comes down to response speed and cost. “One of the big advantages to a UAS—especially the smaller ones—is the speed at which they can be deployed,” Barnhart notes. “Some can be launched from the trunk of a patrol car to get eyes up there pretty quickly. And the cost is hard to beat—a good surveillance UAS is about $45,000 and you can train the operator in about three days. When it comes to surveillance, it can do most anything a manned helicopter can do at a fraction of the cost.”

Commercial Airspace Integration

So why don’t you see a sky full of UASs? The FAA isn’t quite ready to let that happen yet. The idea of allowing remotely piloted or totally autonomous aircraft into the commercial airspace is a gigantic puzzle. FAA states that on a typical day there are nearly 400,000 aircraft operations in the NAS.

Add who knows how many UASs and it could get a bit sticky. Airspace integration is just part of the picture. “There are a lot of questions to answer and they’re not just about technology and capabilities,” Voss says. “The FAA has to determine how it classifies the various vehicles. How does it classify the airspace? How will the UASs fit alongside manned aircraft? What are the infrastructure requirements to make it all happen?”

That’s a lot to digest in a very short time. As one industry insider put it, “the FAA is challenged enough trying to certify a manned airplane, imagine how difficult it will be to figure out all the hoops manufacturers will have to jump through to certify an unmanned aircraft.”

It’s not like they’re not trying. FAA has stated that it will have approvals for UAS operations in the NAS by 2015. But, the first step is the biggest—allowing ANY commercial UAS operations in the NAS.

The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office in Texas uses a ShadowHawk UAS for search and rescue missions and with SWAT team operations. Vanguard

FAA held two public webinars in mid-April regarding the Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 for UAS testing sites. As part of the UAS pilot program, the agency is researching and selecting six different test sites for integrating manned and unmanned flight operations within the general aviation airspace. The six designated areas would coordinate with NASA and DoD while taking into consideration the climate, geography and ground infrastructure surrounding the test ranges. The sites will test the takeoff/landing, maneuverability, high-altitude operations and high-speed flight.

“The FAA has told us they will have an NPRM (Notice of Proposed Rule Making) ready sometime this summer,” Gielow says. “We anticipate the proposed rule will say you can operate an unmanned aircraft if you fly lower than 400 feet AGL and the aircraft weighs less than 55 lbs. We also believe that it will have to be operated within line-of-sight, which means daylight operations only.”

That may not seem like much—after all people have been operating remote control model airplanes and helicopters in that same environment for decades. But “the FAA has a strong differentiation between a UAS and a remote control model,” Gielow explains. “The aircraft can be identical, but it’s how they are used that is the differentiator. As soon as a person wants to use one for any commercial application it becomes an unmanned aerial vehicle and not a model. And right now the FAA prohibits any operation of a UAS without a specific waiver.”

While the exact plan has not been revealed, the consensus is that once the approvals are given for the small (55 lbs. and under) UAS at low altitudes, that the FAA will gradually permit the operation of larger aircraft into more active airspace.

As for the possibility of unmanned aircraft flying passengers—that’s something no one envisions for a long, long time. More realistically is the scenario where a “robot” co-pilot is on board to take over in the event the human pilot becomes incapacitated.

UAS by Any Other Name...

Allowing the early UAS adopters to fly while strictly regulating the weight of the aircraft and altitudes they fly at is the most logical and expeditious way to begin the integration of unmanned aerial vehicles into the commercial airspace while lessening the stress level of Mr. & Mrs. Average American.

Another way may be to change the name. After all, the term “unmanned” conjures up all sorts of Hollywood-esque images of robot aircraft run amuck. “We’re looking forward to the day when we use the term Remotely Piloted Aircraft or Vehicles,” Barnhart said. “The idea popped up at a 2010 conference with the Air Force. I heard a General make the point that the term ‘unmanned’ is a liability.”

In fact, he continues, “there’s nothing unmanned about their operation except for the aircraft itself. With our Aerosonde Mark 4.7, which weighs 55 lbs., we have a four-person crew required for each flight: One to handle takeoff and recovery, another who is the mission payload specialist/operator, the pilot, and a second, standby pilot. And with most operations we have other observers.”

For now though, the official designator is still unmanned aerial systems. But no matter what you want to call them, the fact is they are coming and whether you’re a fan or not, if you fly, there’s a good chance you will benefit from what they bring to the aviation table.

“I think everyone should be excited about this,” Voss says. “This is not a challenge to manned aviation at all. This a tremendous springboard for manned aircraft to benefit from what comes from autonomous operations—take the fundamental automation that makes unmanned systems possible and leverage that next step in upgrading the safety of manned aviation.”


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