Unmanned Aircraft Finding Their Way Into Airspace System
Slowly but surely, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are entering the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS) despite a regulatory regime that was previously considered prohibitive to all but government agencies and research institutions. Unmanned aircraft have flown for the first time commercially in remote Arctic airspace, and companies are considering or have already begun the process of obtaining FAA airworthiness certification of their UAS designs.
Heretofore, the FAA has required that private entities obtain a special airworthiness certificate in the experimental category to operate UASs, a status that prohibits them from being used commercially. Military services and public organizations require a certificate of authorization (COA).
Pushed by Congress, the FAA is gradually lowering the barriers blocking entry by unmanned aircraft into the NAS. In the 2012 FAA reauthorization act, Congress directed the agency to shorten the COA process for public entities. Another provision requires it to allow public safety agencies to fly aircraft weighing 4.4 pounds or less under certain restrictions. To facilitate the mandate, the FAA signed an agreement with the National Institute of Justice, the research-and-development agency of the Department of Justice, to train police departments in operating UASs and authorize their use in local jurisdictions. The agreement expands the UAS weight to 25 pounds.
The FAA said it issued an emergency COA “in just a few hours” that allowed the California Air National Guard to fly a General Atomics MQ-1 Predator in support of firefighters battling the Rim Fire in the Sierra Nevada region in late August. The aircraft flew from Victorville, Calif., for up to 22 hours without landing, training its electro-optical/infrared sensor payload with full-motion video camera on remote areas of the wildfire. The imagery was shared with incident commanders on the ground in real-time.
Safe Integration in the NAS
In an overarching provision of the reauthorization legislation, Congress required the FAA to provide for the “safe integration” of UASs in the NAS by Sept. 30, 2015. In parallel with a similar requirement expressed in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress also directed the agency to designate six UAS test ranges, an eagerly awaited selection the FAA has said it will make this year.
Less publicized until recently was a provision requiring the FAA to “designate permanent areas in the Arctic where small unmanned aircraft may operate 24 hours per day for research and commercial purposes.” The legislation defines “Arctic” as the U.S. zone of the Chukchi Sea, the Beaufort Sea and the Bering Sea north of the Aleutian islandchain. Under this provision, the FAA granted Part 21.25 restricted category type certificates to the hand-launched AeroVironment Puma AE and the Insitu ScanEagle on July 19, for the first time permitting operators to use the aircraft for commercial purposes. Treating each aircraft as “military surplus” already vetted by the Department of Defense facilitated the certifications, according to Jim Williams, manager of the FAA’s UAS integration office.
The agency considers these first certifications to be an important step toward meeting the 2015 integration mandate from Congress. On September 12, energy company ConocoPhillips made history by launching a ScanEagle from the research vessel Westward Wind in the Chukchi Sea some 120 miles off Wainwright, Alaska, the first FAA-approved commercial UAS operation. “Airborne surveillance is often a component of offshore projects,” stated ConocoPhillips Alaska president Trond-Erik Johansen. “The UAS could be useful in our monitoring and data collection efforts, with the benefit of improved safety and lower noise levels as compared to using manned aircraft.”
Monitoring Ops Controversial
However, the company’s use of the catapult-launched ScanEagle to monitor ice flows and whale migrations is seen as supporting drilling operations in environmentally sensitive Arctic waters, which is controversial. In April, ConocoPhillips said that it would suspend exploration drilling in the Chukchi Sea next year “given the uncertainties of evolving federal regulatory requirements and operational permitting standards.”
More than two years ago, the FAA began formulating a regulation for operating small UASs weighing up to 55 pounds within line of sight of the ground. But the agency’s progress toward issuing the small UAS notice of proposed rulemaking ground to a halt during its vetting by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Initially, federal officials attributed the delay to privacy considerations arising from the surveillance capabilities of UASs; more recently they have cited “sequestration” budget cuts at the OMB. The latest estimate for the rule’s release is early 2014.
Detect and Avoid
Industry, the FAA, the Department of Defense and NASA are working the technological challenges confronting UAS airspace integration, among them the need for “detect and avoid” technology to prevent midair collisions of manned and unmanned aircraft. Special Committee 228, an industry-government group formed by federal advisory organization RTCA, is developing minimum operational performance standards for both detect-and-avoid and command-and-control aspects of UASs. It met for the first time on July 30. An FAA aviation rulemaking committee is looking into amending Part 91.113, the federal aviation regulation prescribing aircraft right-of-way rules, to permit an “electronic means” of sensing and avoiding potential collisions, according to Williams. He expects the regulation will be amended by 2016.
NASA is halfway through a five-year, $150 million UAS Integration in the NAS project. In late September, the space agency opened the registration process for the “2014 UAS Airspace Operations Challenge,” an awards competition to demonstrate critical technologies for safely integrating unmanned aircraft in the airspace system. The Department of Homeland Security plans to extend its Robotic Aircraft for Public Safety program, which has tested small UAS in operational scenarios at an Oklahoma State University test site near Elgin, Okla., and evaluated their performance for law enforcement, disaster relief and firefighting applications.
Standards organization ASTM International has developed draft standards for UAS design, performance, quality acceptance and safety monitoring, which will help pave the way to certifying new types. Among interested companies, Yamaha Motor has approached the FAA’s Los Angeles aircraft certification office concerning its RMax unmanned helicopter, widely used in Japan for agricultural spraying.
Earlier this year, 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. commericial market for unmanned aircraft. Under a research collaboration, Yamaha and the University of California-Davis started flying the RMax last November at the university’s Oakville Experimental Vinyard, located in the Napa Valley winegrowing region.
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 at the Unmanned Systems 2013 conference in August, Dave Heidel, AeroVironment’s UAS marketing manager, said production of the second aircraft is “somewhere [around] 80 to 90 percent complete.” He declined to comment on any FAA certification effort, saying only, “We continue to pursue customer opportunities.”