Unmanned aircraft are coming to a sky near you

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs) are no longer just for the military and hunting down terrorists. The way is being cleared for them to fly in civilian airspace. Law enforcement agencies are already making use of UASs, and pretty soon businesses and even individuals will be putting up their own private drones.

Are we close to seeing a hand-thrown UAS hanging in suburban garages above the lawn mower? Probably not. Many homes already have an Unmanned Ground System (UGS) – the Roomba vacuum cleaner by iRobot (which also provides UGSs to the military) – but vacuum cleaners don’t pose a major safety risk to the public.

The FAA is coming out with new rules and setting up organizations and processes for dealing with getting UASs into the national airspace, but technology, as always, moves much faster than bureaucracy. (For more on UAS safety certification, see the Mil Tech Trends article on page 26.)

“The horse is out of the stable already, and things are really moving fast,” says George Romanski, President and CEO of Verocel. “People are now setting up companies to help customers build UASs at home, and there is more sophisticated free software available online to help them experiment with unmanned technology. Small UASs exist now that are easy to use and carry video cameras that can be controlled via an iPad where the user can also watch – via the video feed – where the tiny aircraft is going. They are great toys that can take and record video.”

“I think we’ll see uses we aren’t even thinking of, and not just from law enforcement,” says Bobby Sturgell, Vice President at Rockwell Collins and former Administrator of the FAA. “Academics and researchers are using them for weather prediction and forecasting, and they are being looked at for agriculture, oil pipelines, monitoring forest fires, and other search and rescue operations. Military UAS use is increasing, especially with small aircraft that assist the warfighter in the war on terror and larger aircraft that provide persistent surveillance and ISR capabilities. (For more, see the Special Report on page 16.)

There are many challenges ahead that must be solved before autonomous commercial jets ferry us across the country. First and foremost, we must guarantee that the UASs can be just as safe as a manned aircraft.

“The rules of the road are if you are flying small aircraft on visual flight rules, the pilot has an obligation to avoid somebody else; so what the pilots say [is], ‘If we are doing that, we need the unmanned aircraft to do that as well,’” Romanski says. In case of engine failure, the military has light unmanned aircraft that can glide for miles with preprogrammed routes and landing spots in case of trouble, he says. “This will work pretty well, but like with everything else in programming, you must be specific. There is a famous story of a UAS that suffered a lost link and flew home as preprogrammed, but home in this case was Belgium where the UAS was produced, not where it originally launched.”

“The robustness of the data link and sense and avoid capability are some of the most important technological issues for UASs as they enter civilian airspace,” Sturgell says. “Other than that, we don’t see a lot of technological hurdles that need to be overcome. The technology is out there, and it is just a matter of incorporating it into the platforms that need it.”

Last year Rockwell Collins demonstrated damage tolerance by landing a UAS that had one of its wings blown off. They also are working with NASA Glenn on certifying a data link for use in a NASA UAS – the Control and Non Payload Communications (CNPC) data link program. The collaborative research project focuses on defining the CNPC waveform, seeing how it survives in an RF intensive environment, such as in an urban canyon, says Robert Hughes, Principal Marketing Manager at Rockwell Collins. People get anxious when they hear “forecasts about the skies being filled with all types of unmanned aircraft in the near future,” he continues. “We can combat the fear by educating them on unmanned technology and its benefits and by demonstrating that a UAS can operate reliably and safely.”

“Unmanned aircraft are the next big thing in aviation, and we don’t know what we don’t know when it comes to the different ways unmanned aircraft can benefit the public,” Sturgell says. “The U.S. is a leader in unmanned vehicles and needs to stay a leader in this area and nurture it and let it expand just as the nation did with satellite technology.”

John McHale jmchale@opensystemsmedia.com