The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has recently published for comment a roadmap for the routine operation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in U.S. national airspace.
“I know you all want a file-and-fly regime, but this won’t happen until 2011 at the earliest, according to the roadmap schedule,” Tony Ferranti, the FAA’s director of air traffic safety oversight, told a UAV industry gathering in Washington recently at the Unmanned Systems Program Review conference organized by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
It could be another two years before the FAA even decides whether a new Federal Aviation Regulation is required for the certification of UAVs, according to Doug Davis, manager of the Unmanned Aircraft Program Office that the FAA set up last July. That office is now gathering the “solid data” Davis said is critical to understanding the safety effects of UAVs.
The FAA will rely largely on the Pentagon to provide this data, since the U.S. military has driven the development of most UAVs to date, and has amassed many thousands of flying hours in conflict zones abroad and restricted airspace at home. But Davis and his team are also listening to the industry and Lockheed Martin won a contract to help draft the roadmap.
So far, the FAA has issued well over 100 Certificates of Authorization (CoAs) for UAVs to fly in national airspace. However, these have all gone to public operators such as the Departments of Defense and of Homeland Security, and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Only five permits have been granted to industry, all of which have been under experimental certificates that restrict flying to line-of-sight, in daylight hours and when no other aircraft are present.
Moreover, the FAA has clamped down on some commercial developers who believed they could fly small UAVs using the exemption granted to model airplane hobbyists. Practically speaking, therefore, the industry must use restricted airspace for their test flights, such as that offered by NASA at Wallops Island.
In fact, two incidents last year involving large UAVs operating under the CoA procedure suggest that the FAA’s policy of proceeding with caution is justified. In April, a Predator-B operating for CBP crashed in Arizona after a primary flight-control console failed, and the UAV pilot made an error as he transferred control to the backup console. In November, a Global Hawk descending to Beale Air Force Base from its first training flight in controlled airspace temporarily lost datalink communications and began climbing again as programmed under such circumstances, but to the surprise of air traffic controllers.
The development of “sense-and-avoid” technology is a key to making progress, Davis told the industry. Minimum performance standards for this and overall UAV command and control systems could be approved in 2009, followed by the assignment of frequencies in 2010 and public rulemaking in 2010 and 2011.
Davis said that the FAA is also collaborating with European regulatory authorities. In the meantime, the FAA expects to consider many more applications for CoAs and experimental certificates.
The Global Dimension
But in many other parts of the world the problem of integrating UAVs into civil airspace is being investigated urgently. The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) anticipates a significant increase in both civil and military UAV activity, much of which will require routine access to all classes of airspace.
So the authority has published CAP 722 “UAV Operations in UK Airspace–Guidance” in which it looks at the key areas of concern. These include the development of sense-and-avoid capability, the command-and-control frequencies spectrum and third-party interests–including risks to the public. To achieve this, the CAA is working with UAV companies, Eurocontrol and other European agencies to coordinate national airspace regulation and control.
Meanwhile, some other European countries are building on work began several years ago. France’s DGAC aviation authority, for example, certified the Vigilant rotary-wing UAV for out-of-sight operation in civil airspace 10 years ago, but although a single system was produced by the Thomson-CSF (now Thales) in cooperation with TechnoSud Industries, the company’s interest in the concept has since waned.
Evidently it is law enforcement, border patrol and homeland security organizations that are most keen to employ civil UAVs. The bungee-launched Bird-Eye 500 produced by Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) was demonstrated to the Amsterdam police a few years ago and flown at some 500 feet over highways, the main rail station and the city’s metropolitan area. The UAV carried a gimballed optical payload but remained within airspace monitored by Schiphol Airport.
In a joint venture with Ruag Aerospace of Switzerland, IAI has supplied Ranger UAVs certified for operation by the Swiss air force in civil airspace, while others exported to Finland are similarly cleared for use over inhabited areas. Employed for reconnaissance and carrying an interchangeable payload, the Ranger has the twin-boom/pusher piston-engine configuration characteristic of many IAI UAV designs.
The Ranger can operate up to 18,000 feet, has an endurance of up to eight hours and makes use of a fully automatic launch-and-landing system, its tough skids
evidently coping with difficult terrain. Although the Ranger system has been in service for several years, Denel’s Seeker UAV can claim more than a decade of active operation in South Africa’s civil airspace.
Of classic twin boom/pusher engine propeller design, the Seeker has been operated by the South African National Defence Force in support of the South African Police Services and is credited with helping to reduce crime in major target areas, operating mainly at night, as most crime is carried out under cover of darkness.
Experience has shown that a close relationship between the South African air force and the nation’s CAA has allowed for successful Seeker operations in controlled airspace without affecting the normal air traffic flow in and around the areas where the UAV is flying. The Seeker II is the latest development and features improved digital avionics and improved variants of the ground control station. The new model carries an emergency parachute and a transponder for operation in controlled airspace.
The Seeker has led to the apprehension of more than 1,000 illegal immigrants from neighboring countries and has also helped to retrieve stolen luxury vehicles valued at some $1 million. Denel is now developing hand-launched mini-UAVs for use in a variety of civil applications including delivery of blood and medical supplies to remote areas.
There can be no greater contrast to the new breed of miniature UAVs than the mighty Global Hawk produced by Northrop Grumman, which made history six years ago when one flew nonstop across the Pacific Ocean from Edwards Air Force Base in California to a Royal Australian Air Force base in South Australia. Since that historic flight, several more high-flying Global Hawks have transited the RAAF base near Adelaide en route for operations over Afghanistan. This minimizes the number of overfly approvals that need to be obtained, a problem that put a stop to plans for such operations from Germany.
However, despite incidents and indeed losses since the Global Hawk entered service, both Australia and Germany plan to operate the type, the latter producing the Euro Hawk carrying a signals intelligence (SIGINT), surveillance and reconnaissance system developed by EADS. Five Euro Hawks will replace an aging fleet of Breguet Atlantic SIGNIT aircraft by 2014–time enough for Eurocontrol to plan for UAVs operating in civil airspace.
For several years, the UK’s BAE Systems has been working with the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) and other organizations to push the boundaries for integrating UAVs within controlled and uncontrolled airspace. BAE Systems has opened a UAV test facility to expand flight trials with its Herti 1B UAV in Australia, where it is cleared by CASA to operate from an airfield without the need to request approval. Meanwhile earlier this year, Australia and Singapore conducted a trial of collision-avoidance technologies for swarming AAI-Aerosonde UAVs.