Integrating UASs into Existing Fleets  

By By Mark Colborn | May 1, 2015
Send Feedback

The potential of small UASs like this DJI Inspire 1 (equipped with a 12-megapixel 4K video camera) is great but stymied by concerns about their ability to operate safely in airspace occupied by general aviation and commercial aircraft. Photo by Mark Colborn

Don’t we all wish we could predict the future? New business deals would entail less risk. Investing for retirement would be a snap. There is a future that we can predict. It includes small unmanned aerial systems, and lots of them.

Computers and automation have forever changed aviation. UAS technology will change the way we do business, and could save lives. Pilots, operators and maintenance providers should consider integrating this emerging technology into existing business models. By adding UASs to manned fleets, operators will have a clear advantage over the competition.


The FAA is slowly granting special clearances to fly small UASs for compensation and hire, but it still has the commercial market as a whole in a holding pattern. When the proposed FAR Part 107 is finally published, take-off clearance requests will flow in like a tsunami. The sky is the limit.

The Japanese have used small UASs to spray crops for years. The 200-pound Yamaha RMAX carries about four gallons of applicant. With a 10-15 minute endurance, it can cover 4-12 acres an hour. In the U.S., could a current agricultural operator use an aircraft like that on crop parcels too small to economically treat with a manned airplane or helicopter?

Television and movie producers are increasingly using footage from small UASs in television shows, movies and news programs. Several experienced aerial cinema companies were the first to be granted a certificate of waiver, or “Section 333” exemption. Since that first waiver in May of 2014, over two dozen have been granted to companies for aerial filming, precision aerial surveys, construction site safety monitoring, crop scouting, flare stack monitoring and real estate sales.

The film industry had a leg up on aspiring commercial UAS operators. It already had stringent safety procedures in place. It also had experience getting waivers for production flights and

In Japan, small UASs like the Yamaha RMAX have sprayed crops for years. Photo courtesy of Yamaha

working directly with FAA Flight Standards District Offices.

Film companies were able to adapt their individual motion-picture and TV operations manuals and Flight Operations and Procedures Manuals (FOPM) for safe small-UAS operations. Aerial film companies are required to draft, receive approval for and use a FOPM for manned-flight productions. Proponents see this progress by the FAA and film industry as a step toward bringing film and TV production back to the U.S. Evidence that this is working can be seen in the most recent productions (in Tilden, Texas) of the “Steve Austin’s Broken Skull Challenge” TV show, which used a large-framed “hexacopter” for outdoor filming.

Law enforcement operators of small UASs still must obtain a certificate of authorization or waiver (or COA) from the FAA. The process to do that involves submitting training and operations plans to the agency and then receiving a site visit to evaluate the effectiveness and overall safety of the UAS program. The UAS’s operators must have pilot licenses and valid medical certificates.

It took five years for the Arlington, Texas Police Department to get FAA permission to fly its first UAS. The department has upgraded to the Leptron Robotics Quadcopter with GoPro Hero 3+ video camera. Photo by Mark Colborn

It took the Arlington, Texas Police Department five years to get its first COA (pronounced “coe-ah”). The COA, which it received in February 2012, covered the department’s operation of the Leptron Avenger remote-control helicopter. This machine could lift a medium-sized video camera and thermal imaging camera. The COA did not allow the department to operate at night, so the thermal camera was seldom used.

Arlington has since replaced the Avenger with smaller, more flexible Leptron Robotics Quadcopter equipped with a gimbaled GoPro Hero 3+ camera. The department is awaiting an extension of the COA, which will include permission to fly the new quadcopters on actual missions.

The law enforcement COA system has been in place for more than eight years and, according to the FAA, no significant human injuries or other adverse safety impacts have involved police UASs.

The FAA proposes to give law enforcement operators an alternative. Instead of seeking a COA, they could choose to fly under provisions of the proposed Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, which will cover UASs. One significant benefit of this option is that an operator would no longer be required to have a pilot’s license, said Arlington’s UAS program manager, Sgt. Brook Rollins. The department has had a continual issue staffing its unit with qualified pilots. Law enforcement agencies with manned aviation units have given only cursory consideration to adding small UASs.

Scion UAS’s SA-400 Jackal is one of many UASs that incorporates a “go home” function to automatically fly it back to its takeoff point if the communications link with its operator is broken. Photo courtesy of Scion UAS

Across the Atlantic, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) also has proposed new regulations under its “Concept of Operations for Drones.” EASA would regulate UASs based on the level of complexity and purpose of their operation, including the intended altitude, the airspace environment and operator’s visual line of sight (VLOS) to the airborne UAS. Under EASA’s proposal, an “open” category of operation would not require authorization by an aviation authority but the aircraft would have to stay within defined boundaries and away from airports and people. (EASA would reserve this for “very low risk operations” with VLOS and at an altitude at or below 500 feet.

A “specific” category of operation would require an operations authorization by an aviation authority, with limitations specified. Operators would have to perform a safety risk assessment of airworthiness, operating procedures and environment, personnel competence and airspace issues. An individual operating UASs in this category would have to demonstrate competence and eventually may be required to have an operating license.

A “certified” category of operations would be comparable to the rules for manned aircraft. Such operations would be regulated based on kinetic energy considerations and the level of autonomy, including beyond line of sight (BLOS) operations.

The FAA’s proposed Part 107 would be a game-changer for departments that have no aviation support. It would enable any department to get into the small UAS business quickly and for a fraction of the cost of a manned aircraft. Upstarts and existing companies that choose to provide small UAS equipment and training services should have tremendous opportunities.

One company that is out in front of this explosive market is Scion UAS, headquartered in Fort Collins, Colo. It is focused on the vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) UAS market. The company, started in 2011, recently delivered a second SA-400 Jackal optionally piloted helicopter to the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory for an electronic warfare test program. The Jackal is a 1,200-pound, turbine-powered machine capable of carrying a 500-pound payload. Its endurance is more than four hours. The company is developing a smaller version targeting the commercial market. Called the SA-200 Weasel, it weighs 150 pounds and is designed to hit a 60-knot top speed and carry a 45-pound payload. Jim Sampson, safety pilot and manager, said the Weasel would be ideal for power and pipeline surveys, wind turbine inspections, search and rescue (SAR) and aerial application.

Both Scion UAS platforms are equipped with flight-logic controller boards developed by the Georgia Institute of Technology overa decade ago. Open-source controllers used in all small, hobby aircraft like the DJI Phantom are based on these original designs. (On Jan. 26, a DJI Phantom crashed on the White House grounds.) But the level of sophistication built into the software algorithms can’t compare to the controllers in Scion UAS machines.

Hobby machines feature three-axis gyroscopes, accelerometers and barometers for stabilization, and magnetometers for compass orientation. Add a GPS receiver and the controller knows its location.

The DJI Naza, WooKong and A2 controllers and the 3D Robotics open-source controllers all have a feature called “go home and land.” During initial controller power-up, and before takeoff, the

Proponents say remote, low traffic areas are the most likely places where regulators will permit beyond-line-of-sight UAS operations. Photo courtesy of Scion UAS

controller acquires a GPS signal and its current coordinates are stored to memory. The “go home” feature is designed to engage if the radio transmitter or Wi-Fi-enabled smart phone/tablet loses contact with the machine in flight. At that point, the machine should turn back toward the takeoff point, ascend to a pre-programmed altitude to clear obstacles, and then fly straight back. Once it arrives over the takeoff point, it is designed to stop, slowly descend vertically and land. The operator can also trigger the feature. I have on occasion accidently, and purposefully, tested this feature on each of my inexpensive quads and hexacopters. It worked every time.

Scion UAS has incorporated this feature into its optionally piloted helicopters, with a “go home” button on each aircraft’s instrument panel. Imagine inadvertently flying into low cloud and immediately losing situational awareness. Wouldn’t it be great to push the “go home” button and have the helicopter fly itself back to your takeoff point and land without any further pilot input?

Manned helicopter research has centered on systems that assist pilots, such as heads-up displays, improved avionics, digital mapping systems and terrain awareness and warning systems. Autopilot systems are expensive and nearly non-existent in VFR helicopters. But pilots are human and can find themselves in situations beyond their capabilities. A “go home” switch could save lives.

Sampson said a GPS flight-logic controller system in an optionally piloted helicopter reduces pilot workload. The machine could be put into hover mode so the pilot can concentrate on placing a payload. Perfect grid patterns could be flown for SAR missions and topographic and magnetometer surveys. The system could be coupled to a camera system to enable a police helicopter to stay directly over a vehicle pursuit.

Package delivery companies (like Amazon) and ag operators are upset that the FAA’s proposed rules do not include BLOS flight. UASs can conduct autonomous waypoint flight today using free mapping services. The DJI Phantom Vision, DJI Inspire 1 and 3D Robotics IRIS+ quadcopters have this capability.

UAS market growth hinges on actions of the FAA and EASA. Aviation authorities have a mandate to ensure aircraft operate safely in their airspace. The military operates UASs in restricted airspace or sets up special radar to monitor their flights. But U.S. and European airspace is packed with aircraft, and U.S. airspace also is crowded with general aviation aircraft.

This airspace can’t simply be carved up with certain altitudes designated to drones. A system has to be developed to separate UASs from manned aircraft at the same level of reliability as the system that today keeps manned aircraft separated. The regulators and industry are struggling with the best methods to integrate UASs into manned airspace.

While their autonomous flight capability can be amazing, UASs must be augmented with reliable, 360-degree, onboard collision avoidance capabilities. They also must be able to communicate their position to ATC and to manned aircraft.

To seriously consider package delivery, the amount of human intervention needed after the machine leaves the “fulfillment center” or “pizza joint” has to be discussed. Human beings many miles away fly military and border security UASs remotely. Onboard cameras transmit constant video to a ground station, allowing the remote pilot to steer the machine to an airstrip or to a safe crash-landing area in case of a system failure. A fully autonomous package delivery drone wouldn’t have that important human fail-safe.

Two to three more years of development and testing may be needed before the FAA would approve BLOS UAS flight in civil airspace, according to Mike McNair, a principal research scientist in robotics with the University of Texas at Arlington Research Institute (UTARI). That institute is an extension of Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi’s Lone Star UAS Center of Excellence and Innovation, one of six UAS test sites around the U.S. UTARI’s research focuses on UAS potential tracking, conflict prediction, collision avoidance, obstacle detection and avoidance, hybrid airspace interaction and control systems.

Scion UAS’s Sampson envisions the FAA granting operating permits for BLOS operations in remote, unpopulated areas first, such as patrolling pipelines in remote, low-traffic areas or surveying stormwater drainage and elevation changes at open pit mines.

Speculation is healthy, so I conservatively envision four stages of UAS integration in U.S. airspace:

• Small and micro-UAS non-recreational use as the FAA proposes (hopefully before the end of 2015, but realistically in 2016).

• BLOS UAS operations in remote areas (2017-2018).

• Medium-to-large autonomous (but operator-controlled) operations above 500 feet AGL (by 2020).

BLOS autonomous package delivery drones (2022-2025).


Avionics Magazine and Aviation Today’s multimedia editor, Woodrow Bellamy III, also contributed to this article.

Receive the latest rotorcraft news right to your inbox