The drone era is upon us

From the moment an autonomous car gave Weather channel celebrity Jim Cantore a lift to the stage to start his keynote address to the xPonential audience to his introduction of Federal Aviation Administration () administrator Michael Huerta, the message of the event was clear: are going to be part of our daily lives sooner rather than later.


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Figure 1: Jim Cantore in an autonomous vehicle being driven to the stage.
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The speed at which this industry is accelerating is staggering. “This pace of this development is something that we talk about a lot. It’s something that inspires a great deal of awe,” Huerta said. “In the traditional aircraft industry, new jetliners are introduced maybe once every 10 or 15 years. In the world of unmanned aircraft, 10 or 15 new products might be introduced every year.”

Huerta noted that he has been asked what it was like to be present “at the birth of a whole new sector of aviation, a whole new industry.” In reality, he said, “I certainly didn’t think of it that way, until the question came up – I guess it’s human nature to become so focused on the incremental stuff that we are doing day-to-day, that we forget to take stock of how far we’ve actually come in a very short period of time.”


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Figure 1: FAA Administrator Michael Huerta during his keynote speech at Xponential 2017.
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The numbers back him up. “Today, more than 820,000 operators have registered their aircraft,” Huerta noted. “More than 745,000 of those are hobbyists, leaving 60,000 or so that are commercial operators of unmanned aircraft. We have issued more than 43,000 Remote Pilot Certificates under Part 107, in the short time that it’s been in effect. Just last month, we published more than 200 facility maps to help streamline authorizations in the airspace around some of our busiest airports.”

Yet while the pace is exciting to many there are just as many industry observers, commercial airline pilots, and the general flying public not so much an awe at the growth but nervous about the safety of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) flying in the same airspace as their Southwest flight from New York LaGuardia to Orlando for the family vacation to Disney World.

Huerta noted this in his speech and said that safety must be paramount. Regulations regarding drones are still lacking, actually lagging behind the innovations. Although the FAA did issue some preliminary guidance on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in 2015, state and local governments want more clarification to deal with this growing industry.

Embedded computing suppliers say they are glad to see civilian agencies taking the lead with drone safety. In fact, The FAA and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) are working to streamline the process and address these challenges. “There is a trend for an increase in FAA and EASA alignment,” Rick Hearn, product manager at Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions in Ottawa, Canada, states in the article titled “Next-gen aviation systems see push for automation, multicore processors in the certification process.” “They’re calling it ‘harmonization.’ What we’ve seen in the past is that the EASA and the FAA have much the same set of rules for certification but they tend to differ in their implementation. Increasingly, though, we’re seeing rules being harmonized through the standards bodies and through some of the meetings that they have between the two certifying bodies.”

The process is still incomplete and concerns loom over the certification process. “ are kind of hard because we still don’t have a full understanding of how to certify them,” says George Romanski, president and CEO of Verocel, in Westford, Massachusetts, in the blog “Unmanned aircraft certification challenges.” In it, he also states “They are using DO-178C for aircraft components and aircraft systems, but even the FAA hasn’t fully found a way of certifying the unmanned vehicles. For the small ones it’s easy, class one and class two, they are light, they’re simple.”

One of the most pressing safety concerns is drone operation over populated areas. According to Huerta: “The FAA’s Center of Excellence recently completed the first in a series of research projects looking at the potential safety ramifications of what might happen when a drone hits a person on the ground.”

Huerta said that the next phase of this research will “verify the results of the most recent study, as well as develop tests that manufacturers can use to certify their aircraft for flights over people.”

To learn more on drones and safety view the on demand webinar titled “Unmanned Aircraft and Safety Certification.”

However, ground casualties bring in more than just technological challenges, they also create moral, legal, and insurance questions. The FAA has its hands full there.

And what about midair collisions? It’s a known fact in the industry that in UAV platforms is as efficient as that of manned aircraft.

Regarding this issue Huerta only said that the “FAA is also collaborating with law enforcement and the military to examine security concerns, particularly security concerns that they have raised in the world of unmanned aircraft.”

Regardless of whether the FAA and industry figures out the regulatory and technological challenges around drone safety in the national airspace the genie in many cases is already out of the bottle.

“All you have to do is go to YouTube and search for ‘night drone flight’ or ‘drone footage,’ put in any city, you’ll find dozens of videos that still reflect a sobering lack of understanding of guidelines and of basic safety regulations,” Huerta said.

Like it or not, drones are a part of everyday American life. From Amazon delivery robots to real estate photography to sporting event coverage to law enforcement and of course to news reports of U.S. military drone strikes against terrorist targets overseas.

The government regulators in many ways are still playing catch up.

Read the complete article: “Next-gen aviation systems see push for automation, multicore processors in the certification process.”

Read the blog: “Unmanned aircraft certification challenges.”