After First Commercial Flight, Other UAS Types Advance

 - September 23, 2013, 11:07 PM
Yamaha has approached the FAA's Los Angeles certification office concerning its RMax unmanned helicopter. (Photo: Yamaha Motor Corp.)

With the first commercial flight of an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) now accomplished, at least two other potential certification efforts are under way for unmanned aircraft that would fly at opposite extremes of the airspace if the Federal Aviation Administration approves them.

On Monday, the FAA announced that ConocoPhillips conducted the first agency-approved commercial UAS flight on September 12 when it launched an Insitu ScanEagle from the research vessel Westward Wind in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska. The energy company plans to use the aircraft to monitor whale migrations and ice flows.

The FAA granted restricted-category type certifications for the ScanEagle and the hand-launched AeroVironment Puma AE on July 19, for the first time allowing operators to use them for commercial purposes. The certifications limit the operations to remote, Arctic airspace.

In a recent interview, Jim Williams, manager of the FAA’s UAS integration office, said Yamaha Motor Corporation has approached the agency’s Los Angeles certification office concerning its RMax unmanned helicopter, widely used in Japan for agricultural spraying. Yamaha and the University of California-Davis are collaborating on a research project and started field testing the helicopter in November at the university’s Oakville Experimental Vinyard, located in the Napa Valley winegrowing region.

In March, the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International released a UAS economic impact study that identifies precision agriculture, including remote crop monitoring and precision spraying of pesticides and fertilizer, as the most promising U.S. commercial market for unmanned aircraft. “Yamaha is researching the market to determine opportunities in the U.S. for agriculture usage of the RMax,” a company spokesman said in response to an AIN inquiry.

UAS manufacturer AeroVironment started the process of obtaining FAA type certification of its high-altitude, long-endurance Global Observer UAS in August 2012, Williams has said. The company touts the liquid hydrogen-fueled aircraft for communications relay, border patrol and remote sensing applications. In April 2011, one of two aircraft developed under a joint capability technology demonstration (JCTD) crashed at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., about 15 hours into its ninth test flight. AeroVironment acquired the second aircraft from the JCTD program, which was supported by the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

Interviewed last month at the Unmanned Systems 2013 conference in Washington, D.C., Dave Heidel, AeroVironment’s UAS marketing manager,  said manufacture of the second aircraft is “somewhere (around) 80-to-90 percent complete.” He declined to comment on any FAA certification effort, saying only that “we continue to pursue customer opportunities.”