Unmanned Integration Milestones In Sight as Industry Gathers

 - September 1, 2013, 3:10 AM
The Unmanned Systems 2013 conference attracted 593 exhibitors and 8,000 registered attendees to the Washington, D.C., Convention Center, according to the sponsoring Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

The next steps toward wider introduction of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the U.S. airspace system were within line of sight as the industry gathered for its largest conference last month in Washington, D.C. Federal government officials said that a long-delayed proposed rulemaking for operations of small UAS weighing up to 55 pounds will be released by the end of the year. Also by year-end, the FAA will designate six UAS test ranges in a program sought by 24 states.

The two steps are a prelude to meeting the requirement expressed by Congress in the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act that UAS be safely introduced into the U.S. National Airspace System by September 2015, enabling commercial operations beyond the governmental and scientific missions the FAA has already approved.

“During the last two decades, the FAA has authorized limited use (of UAS) for important missions in the public interest, things like firefighting, disaster relief, search-and-rescue, law enforcement, border patrol and more,” said John Porcari, U.S. Department of Transportation deputy secretary. “Now, we’re setting out to integrate unmanned aerial systems into our national airspace. The 2015 deadline that has been mandated by Congress is an ambitious one, but we’re working hard toward meeting it and we’re committed to getting it right.”

A questioner asked Porcari if the federal government’s efforts to develop “sense and avoid” technology for UAS to help them detect nearby aircraft that do not have transponders might better be spent on equipping GA aircraft with automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) transmitters, which the government has mandated by 2020. “As someone who learned to fly in the Stinson 108 without a radio, [I recognize] there’s still a large fleet out there that is important to our aviation system that is not equipped,” he responded. “It is possible that a broader program of equipage for ADS-B or other means might help. But I think we need to look at the realistic possibility that in the entire spectrum of aviation for the foreseeable future, there are going to be aircraft that are not equipped for in-time sense and avoid and through policies and procedures we’re going to have to find ways to accommodate that. But I will tell you we are sensitive to the [ADS-B] cost issue for general aviation.”

Porcari delivered the keynote speech at the Unmanned Systems 2013 conference on August 14. The four-day event drew 593 exhibitors and 8,000 registered attendees, according to its sponsoring organization, the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). This was an increase from the 550 exhibitors and 7,400 attendees reported after last year’s conference in Las Vegas. The annual event has traditionally alternated between Washington, D.C., and a western state location, but moves to Orlando, Atlanta and New Orleans over the next three years. It will also be held in May to accommodate European visitors who normally vacation in August, AUVSI said. A European offshoot of the conference will be held in Koln, Germany, in October.

Rulemaking Delayed

Future conferences may take a retrospective look at the steps the U.S. government takes toward UAS civil airspace integration. Originally, the FAA expected to release the small-UAS notice of proposed rulemaking in December 2011. But the agency’s progress toward drafting the rule lapsed during its vetting by the Department of Transportation and the White House Office of Management and Budget over privacy considerations arising from the surveillance capabilities of UAS. Addressing the Unmanned Systems conference on August 13, Jim Williams, manager of the FAA’s UAS integration office, said the small-UAS rule is slated for release for comment “by the end of this calendar year.”

Williams focused his remarks on the two restricted-category type certifications the FAA granted for the Insitu ScanEagle and the AeroVironment Puma AE air vehicles on July 19, for the first time permitting operators to fly unmanned aircraft commercially. The approvals responded to another provision of the 2012 FAA reauthorization legislation requiring the agency to designate “permanent areas in the Arctic where small unmanned aircraft may operate 24 hours per day for research and commercial purposes.”

Treating the first two aircraft as “military surplus” previously accepted by the military facilitated the certifications, Williams said. This month, energy company ConocoPhillips is to begin flying the ScanEagle from a ship to monitor whale migrations and ice flows in the Chukchi Sea. An undisclosed customer will use the hand-launched Puma AE for monitoring oil spills and wildlife in the Beaufort Sea off the coast of Alaska.

In his keynote speech, Porcari reconfirmed the FAA’s intent to select six national UAS test sites by the end of the year. “We believe these test sites will give us invaluable data to help determine what the safe, responsible integration of UAS into our National Airspace System will look like,” he said. “The response to this solicitation has been tremendous; we’ve received 25 proposals from public organizations in 24 states. We’re encouraged by the levels of collaboration and innovation that are in these proposals.” The test-site solicitation has also given the FAA an opportunity to float a privacy policy, now in development, that will be required of the test site operators.

State policymakers expect that winning a test-site designation from the FAA will help spur a cluster of economic activity around UAS. Several states sent delegations to the Unmanned Systems conference to promote their applications.

The North Dakota Legislature has appropriated $5 million to develop a UAS test site in the state, $4 million of it contingent on an FAA designation. “We have the strongest possible support at all levels of our government,” said North Dakota Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, who chairs the recently formed Northern Plains Unmanned Systems Authority. “Our federal delegation is aggressively engaged and has been from the start. [We have] industry support and academic support. General aviation is at the table and strongly supporting all of these initiatives…This is an extraordinary opportunity. We feel strongly about our proposal to be one of the test sites.”

Despite the official enthusiasm and regulatory progress, the industry’s struggle for public acceptance continued, with activists and mainstream media outlets deriding the conference as a gathering of the “drone lobby.” As expected, the antiwar group Code Pink protested at the entrance to the Washington Convention Center, where the event was held, and one of its members disrupted a keynote speech by U.S. Army Lt. Gen. James Barclay. Media outlets saw an attempt at coercion in the password reporters needed to access Wi-Fi in the press room: “DontSayDrones.”

Major contractors exhibiting at the conference knew in advance of a walk-through by the news program 60 Minutes and brought in their most seasoned spokespeople to represent them.