The National Airspace System, depicted in this computer simulation, is one of the world's most complex aviation systems. Credit: NASA.
The FAA’s effort to bring unmanned planes into the nation’s airspace faces tough obstacles, political as well as technical. Work is under way to resolve questions about privacy and to find affordable detect-and-avoid technologies.
When Richard Christiansen was working at NASA headquarters in the mid- 1990s, he suggested to FAA officials that they establish regulations for unmanned aircraft flights. Christiansen and others at NASA were ex- cited about unmanned planes, because flight crews and equipment could be re- placed with instruments for studying hurri- canes, air pollution and other phenomena, perhaps for days at a time.
The reaction was surprising. “A couple of people said, ‘Why are you bothering us about something that is only going to hap- pen a couple of times a year? We don’t need to go through the long, arduous process of developing certification, rules and regulatory documents,’” recalls Chris- tiansen, now vice president of the engi- neering company Sierra Lobo in Fremont, Ohio, and chairman of AIAA’s unmanned systems program committee.
Two decades later, the Teal Group fore- casts that governments and businesses will spend $89 billion on unmanned systems through 2023. The FAA now has a roadmap and comprehensive plan describing the ac- tions that will be required to integrate these aircraft into the national airspace without compromising safety. President Obama signed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act in 2012 to prod his FAA to work faster
but carefully on this initiative—to “acceler- ate safely,” as the law puts it.
Problem solved, right? Not so, say those who want to use unmanned craft for every- thing from spotting poachers and crime suspects to delivering consumer packages, as proposed on “60 Minutes” in December by Amazon.com founder Jeffrey Bezos. The modernization law tells FAA to integrate unmanned aircraft in the national airspace
by Sept. 30, 2015, but doesn’t set a deadline for regular flights.
On top of that, the integration process assumes human pilots or operators will fly the planes from ground sites. According to the roadmap: a “pilot-in-command” would have “full control or over- ride authority” of the craft. Many in the private sector, including Bezos, ultimately want au- tonomous craft—planes or heli- copters that could be com-
by Debra Werner
AEROSPACE AMERICA/JANUARY 2014 29
On a recent episode of “60 Minutes,” Jeff Bezos, left, says his company, Amazon.com, is testing drones for use in delivering packages. Credit: CBS News.
ConocoPhillips flew a remotely piloted InSitu ScanEagle off Alaska in September. The FAA says this was the first U.S. commercial unmanned flight. Credit: Insitu.
manded to navigate to a point on map. Then there are the U.S. states to consider. Thirteen of them have passed laws or reso- lutions restricting unmanned aircraft opera- tions because of safety or privacy concerns, and skeptics in many other states are trying to do the same.
The reality is that it will take time—pos- sibly lots of time—to turn desire into spe- cific rules and standards for everything from pilot certification to detect-and-avoid technologies to secure command and con- trol links. “In about 2025 and maybe be- yond that, we would like to be at the stage where you could actually file your flight plan and conduct routine operations with- out restriction,” says Ali Bahrami, vice pres- ident of civil aviation for AIA, the Aero- space Industries Association
For safety’s sake, the first rules are expected to apply to craft weighing less than 55 pounds and operating within visual range of their ground-based pilots. FAA anticipates 7,500 of these aircraft will be flying in the national airspace in the next five years.
Right now, hobbyists and enthusiasts are allowed to fly those by remote control so long as the craft stay within visual range, away from air traf- fic and below an altitude of 400 feet. They can’t legally be flown for commercial services like those proposed by Bezos. Paving the way for freer flight in U.S.-controlled airspace are two unmanned aircraft certified by the FAA to conduct commercial operations over the Chukchi Sea west of Alaska. Cono- coPhillips used four ScanEagle planes in September to track whales and map sea ice. The 18-kilogram ScanEagle X200s were launched by catapult from a commercial research ship. They are similar to the model that flew over the Maersk Ala- bama merchant ship in 2009 to watch the scene where Capt. Richard Phillips was being held hostage on a lifeboat by Somali pirates. The FAA has also ap- proved another veteran of mili- tary action for flights in the Arctic—AeroVi- ronment’s 6-kilogram Puma, used by troops
in Afghanistan. Amazon had to leave the U.S. to legally
fly its eight-rotor, electric craft, according to the FAA. U.S. law only allows hobbyists to fly such craft for recreational purposes. Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.
For advocates, FAA’s approval of the Arctic flights was heartening, but not the entire answer they seek. A rule allowing operations of these small unmanned craft in any U.S. airspace, but below the altitude where other commercial planes generally cruise has been stalled in the approval process for more than a year. The FAA says it expects to publish a proposed rule on these small aircraft in 2014, and eventually to address larger aircraft too. “Creating the right regulatory structure is the biggest chal- lenge to integration, especially for larger unmanned aircraft systems,” according to spokesman Les Dorr. “That structure has to address and accommodate the technologi- cal aspects of an evolving industry, as well as the regulatory standards,” he says.
When it comes to the sub-55-kilogram craft, one executive says the delay in ap- proval of the rule is creating a dangerous situation by tempting developers to fly their craft anyway.
“It’s the Wild West,” says John Langford, chairman and chief executive of Aurora Flight Sciences, the Manassas, Va., company that makes a full range of unmanned craft, including the hand-launched Skate. “People are ignoring the law. That’s going to lead to accidents that will create huge setbacks for the industry.”
Job number one
The FAA is famously cautious when it comes to rule changes that could impact the safe operation of 60 million flights an- nually. Whereas military leaders might ac- cept the risk of one catastrophic incident in 100,000 flight hours, provided the incident would not doom the overall mission, the FAA works toward no more than one cata- strophic failure in a billion flight hours.
“The challenge is going to be having un- manned aircraft systems that are robust enough to give you that kind of perform- ance and reliability,” says Bahrami, who spent 24 years at the FAA before working for AIA.
That insider’s view has convinced Bahrami that there is no shortcut on the path to unmanned aircraft integration in the national airspace. Many different govern- ment agencies, research institutions and private industry groups will have to work in
Used by U.S. military troops in Afghanistan, the 6-kilogram Puma has been approved by the FAA for flights in the Arctic. Credit: AeroVironment
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parallel to tackle a variety of thorny techno- logical and societal issues. Nevertheless, he is encouraged by publication of the FAA roadmap and an accompanying document, “Unmanned Aircraft System Comprehensive Plan: A Report on the Nation’s UAS Path Forward.”
What will be needed, he says, is to “fol- low the steps the FAA outlined, execute them and deliver on those commitments.”
The U.S. is not alone in barring un- manned planes from its busy air corridors. In fact, no countries allow routine opera- tions of unmanned aircraft in or around major cities, but many do permit them to operate at low altitude or in areas where there is little air traffic. In South Africa, for example, Aurora Flight Sciences recently demonstrated how its 1-kilogram Skate un- manned plane could help national park rangers detect poachers hunting endan- gered rhinoceroses. The flights helped Kashmir-Robotics of Great Falls, Va., learn about unmanned aircraft operations in ad- vance of its Wildlife Conservation Chal- lenge, a $65,000 competition to find anti- poaching aircraft.
Going abroad has its attractions. To conduct flight tests in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, Aurora didn’t need to go to the country’s equivalent of the FAA. The company needed approval only from park officials, because “whoever owns the land gets to decide what can be flown above it,” Aurora’s Langford says.
Flying unmanned aircraft in the U.S. for research or other government purposes is hard, but not impossible. NASA has a fleet of unmanned planes that peer into hurri- canes, study volcanoes, analyze pollution and map wildfires. U.S. border patrol agents working with law enforcement agencies in Texas and Arizona fly un- manned aircraft to detect and interdict drug smugglers. Academic researchers employ unmanned planes in numerous weather, disaster response and agriculture research projects. North Dakota State University teams used the planes in 2010 to obtain im- ages of the flooded Red River Valley.
Each of those government and aca- demic research flights required an FAA waiver, called a Certificate of Authorization. In response to congressional direction, the FAA has streamlined the waiver application process and extended the period of each authorization’s validity from 12 to 24
In November, rangers in South Africa’s Kruger National Park got their first glimpse of unmanned aircraft small enough to fit in a backpack. Aurora Flight Sciences employees used 1-kilogram Skate unmanned planes to show rangers a new way to protect endangered rhinoceroses from poachers seeking to kill them for their horns.
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months. The roadmap and comprehensive plans are the FAA’s attempt to move away from the waiver process and establish per- manent rules governing unmanned aircraft operations.
Detect and avoid
The FAA documents describe the major technical challenges that must be solved to integrate the new aircraft into the airspace. For starters, unmanned craft and their oper- ators will need to show that they are as good as traditional systems at detecting the location of other planes and avoiding them. A federal advisory committee is currently developing standards for detect-and-avoid technologies based on recommendations
kind of situation. If communication with a ground-based pilot or operator were lost, a plane would need to rely on autonomous systems to guide it home, back to the last point where its data link worked, or to a safe landing on the ground, says Poss, now director of strategic initiatives at Mississippi State University.
Although these technological hurdles are significant, there’s an arguably higher political hurdle. While the FAA has been busy figuring out how to let these craft into federal skies, some states have been busy working to strictly limit their use. Legisla- tors in 43 states have proposed 118 bills and resolutions to limit unmanned aircraft operations. Thirteen states have enacted 16 bills; 10 states have adopted resolutions, ac- cording to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Most of those would prohibit police from using unmanned craft for surveillance without a warrant. Some go even farther. In Montana, law enforcement agencies cannot use unmanned aircraft to collect evidence. In Nebraska, the same rule applies unless a terrorist attack is suspected. Virginia law would prevent state agencies from employ- ing unmanned planes until July 1, 2015, ex- cept in specific emergencies such as search and rescue operations and National Guard exercises.
Advocates for unmanned aircraft say this patchwork of laws and resolutions is unworkable. “Can you imagine using un- manned aircraft systems to conduct a disas- ter relief effort, but being unable to cross state lines?” Bahrami says. To resolve the problem, the Aerospace Industries Associa- tion is calling for national leadership to ad- dress privacy concerns.
That type of initiative is under way. FAA’s comprehensive plan notes that inte- gration of unmanned craft in the national airspace raises many issues related to na- tional security and privacy. The FAA is working with the White House national se- curity staff to establish an interagency com- mittee to address these concerns, according to the comprehensive plan.
In one view, the federal bureaucracy is in a race, whether it likes it or not, with the states. Without a firmer national plan, states are likely to persist in their efforts to ad- dress the matter. “When the federal govern- ment fails to do its job, authority reverts back to the states,” Langford says. “In avia- tion, we need one set of laws that applies to the whole country.”
made by the
non-profit Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, the FAA says.
Draft requirements circu- lated in 2008 called for un- manned planes to be capa- ble of detecting other aircraft at a range of 3 statute miles with a 30-de- gree vertical field of view and a 220-degree horizontal field of view. The draft was produced by a subcommit- tee of the American Society for Testing and Materials, a non-profit organization that develops voluntary consen- sus standards. Sensors that can meet the above require-
A park ranger said the Skate took 15 minutes to survey an area that would have taken him 4 hours. Credit: Aurora Flight Sciences.
ment today either weigh too much or would be too costly for many missions. Re- search scientist Sanjiv Singh of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute sees a possible answer: He suggests requiring all aircraft to carry the type of transponders commercial jets are adopting for the Next Generation Air Transportation System.
The fear factor
Engineers are wrestling with the challenge of developing sophisticated command and control systems that can withstand hacking. “No matter how you look at it, UAVs have got to have data links with ground control stations,” said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. James Poss, former assistant deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and recon- naissance at Air Force headquarters. “Those data links will be vulnerable to hacking.”
The command link also could be lost because of equipment failure, and an air- craft must be programmed to handle this
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Challenged to ‘Build & Fly’ Kashmir-Robotics CEO Princess Aliyah of Great Falls issues "Build & Fly" conservation challenge