Spectators Far Removed from Florida UAV Demonstration

 - May 11, 2014, 10:55 PM
Ty Rozier displays Elevated Horizons' Agri6 helicopter. Spectators were restricted to the tent in the background. (Photo: Bill Carey)

Space Florida hosted a tightly controlled unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) flight demonstration on Sunday amid concern the FAA would pull the plug on the event, which served as a prelude to the Unmanned Systems 2014 conference this week in Orlando. With the exception of the media and participating UAS organizations, spectators were kept far removed from the launch area in a field at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

Organizers said they did not require an FAA certificate of authorization (COA) to conduct the demonstration, which was held in restricted airspace in the Eastern Range used by the U.S. Air Force’s 45th Space Wing. Both the Air Force and NASA approved it; however, the FAA had ultimate authority for safety and at one point in the preparations wanted spectators kept as far away as the space center visitor complex nearly a mile distant, according to contractors working the event. As companies and universities flew their fixed- and rotary-wing models, spectators watched on screens installed in a tent nearby. As more people arrived, organizers urged earlier spectators to return to the visitor complex.

Asked if the FAA wanted people withdrawn, Denny Roderick, who was overseeing a team of 11 employees from Aviation Systems Engineering Company (ASEC), replied: “The FAA’s charter is to advance UAS into the National Airspace System. They have a whole slew of constituents that have issues that are pro and con to doing that, so I appreciate the challenges they have.” Under contract to Space Florida, the state’s aerospace economic development agency, ASEC was responsible for vetting the UAS for airworthiness and managing safety during the demonstration. It also participated in Space Florida’s first such demonstration on February 27 and 28.

“There [were] many, many safeguards in place before we ever got here,” Roderick said. “First, we worked with the Air Force and NASA through NASA’s safety vetting process. We emulated that. We looked at safety risk cases for all of the vehicles that are flying here. We looked at failure modes, operator training, the robustness of the vehicle, the reliability of the vehicle. We did a presentation to NASA and to our leadership and to Space Florida to say we were satisfied with the total system.”

Held in conjunction with the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) annual conference, the demonstration featured 10 air vehicles performing precision agriculture, search and rescue, firefighting and disaster response scenarios. “They’re not flying to fly; they had to prove their sensor packages met the scenarios we had planned,” said Jim Kuzma, Space Florida chief operating officer. “We turned people away who didn’t have sensors.”

Florida was among 24 states that sought the FAA’s designation as a UAS test range; it was not among the six winners the agency selected in December. Still, Kuzma said Space Florida is applying for a COA from the FAA to continue UAS testing. “Our goal is to enable safe integration of UAS in the airspace system,” he said. “Even without the [test range] designation, we are working closely with the FAA to look at the protocols necessary to do that integration.”