AIN Blog: Unmanned Aircraft Industry Operates on Brink of Acceptance

 - August 22, 2011, 5:55 AM

The briefing requests started three weeks out: “[company executive] available to discuss new products at our exhibit. Can we arrange a meeting?” In advance of the Unmanned Systems North America conference last week, I received nearly 40 such invitations, still only a fraction of the reported 510 exhibitors at the four-day event held in Washington, D.C.’s cavernous downtown convention center. The number of requests exceeded those I received before Ebace and even the Paris Air Show, suggesting a proliferation in the market for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Whereas the conference in the past had the feel of a niche gathering, unmanned aircraft now have a high profile. The use of armed “drones” in Afghanistan and Iraq caused a brief protest by one of the founders of the anti-war group Code Pink during the pre-show press conference earlier in August at the National Press Club. Of note, the word drones, implying mindless, winged rockets launched for target practice, is not a word that is used in the UAS community. This industry reminds me of one of those overcast, expectant summer days in Washington, just waiting to burst into a thunderstorm–but not quite yet. In the five years I’ve followed it, the industry has been ever-approaching the Holy Grail of introducing UAS in civilian airspace for a host of peaceful purposes. There are some real visionaries–Johnny Walker, co-chairman of RTCA Special Committee 203, and David Vos of Rockwell Collins come to mind–working toward that end. Access to airspace and “public, social acceptance of these particular machines, doing what they do,” are among top priorities of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), said chairman Peter Bale, a business development executive with Boeing subsidiary Insitu. AUVSI, which sponsors the unmanned systems conference, is “in the deep stages of strategic thinking of how we can gain access to civil airspace,” Bale said. That day may not be too far off for “small” UAS, nominally 50 pounds or lighter. A proposed FAA rulemaking governing the operation of small UAS is anticipated by December, with a final rule following in mid-2013. In June, an aviation rulemaking committee was formed to consider larger UAS. But for now, unmanned aircraft in the U.S. can operate only in restricted airspace or through certificates of authorization (CoA) issued by the FAA to public agencies. A company that seeks to operate a UAS as part of a business must obtain a special airworthiness certificate in the experimental category. “The progress is slow–too slow for what’s going on here,” said retired admiral Tim Heely, chairman of AUVSI’s advocacy committee.