Integration concerns will keep domestic drones on the tarmac

Even though unmanned aerial systems are already hauling cargo, spraying crops, monitoring pipeline integrity and, of course, targeting terrorists, the use of UAS in domestic U.S. airspace has been very limited. 

The recently released Federal Aviation Administration's 2013 UAS road map — "Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System (NAS) Roadmap" — promises significant steps toward that goal. At the same time, however, the document makes it clear that the expanded use of unmanned aircraft in the United States will take place very gradually.

In fact, the only step to be taken in 2014 that will be visible to the public will be the opening of six UAS test sites around the country. The congressionally mandated sites will conduct limited UAS operations and research into how best to safely integrate UAS systems into the national airspace, including what navigation and certification requirements are needed.

Behind the scenes, however, the road map calls for government and industry to pursue a series of steps toward developing technologies, standards, rule and policies. "Ultimately," notes the report, "the pace of integration will be determined by the ability of industry, the user community, and the FAA to overcome technical, regulatory, and operational challenges."

The challenges are daunting. Apart from the bureaucratic steps of developing standards and procedures, the report notes that there are still significant technological and operational hurdles to be overcome.

Specifically, the report points to two areas requiring technological advances: sense-and-avoid systems and communications. 

While some sense-and-avoid systems — which are designed to ensure automatic collision avoidance — are nearly ready for deployment, the FAA indicates that it is still researching standards and minimum performance requirements for such systems. 

The FAA's UAS road map also highlights the need for further development of secure and reliable communications between unmanned aircraft and control stations "to support the required performance of the unmanned aircraft in the NAS and to ensure that the pilot always maintains a threshold level of control of the aircraft."

The FAA is working with the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, a private nonprofit organization, to develop requirements for such communications systems. 

According to the report, "Advanced research is required in data link management, spectrum analysis, and frequency management." 

More specifically, the report cites the need for:

  • Identification of satellite communication spectrum. 
  • Verification and validation of control communication final performance requirements. 
  • Establishment of UAS control link national/international standards. 
  • And development and validation of technologies to mitigate vulnerabilities. 

Finally, the report cites the need for further research on human factors. According to the report, "In the near term, data will be collected to permit analysis of how pilots fly UAS, how controllers provide service involving a mix of manned aircraft and UAS and how pilots and controllers interact with each other, with the goal of developing pilot, [air traffic control], and automation roles and responsibilities concepts."

While the report is very specific about its milestone goals for establishing requirements for UAS, it is notably vague about setting target dates for actual integration of UAS into the domestic airspace, no doubt because of uncertainty about the pace of technology developments.

At the same time, as equipment developers have noted, the absence of standards has held back the development of the technologies.

Accordingly, the FAA report advises an "incremental approach" to developing the required technologies and integrating UAS into the domestic airspace. "Because the UAS community is well established under its current operational assumptions, it is unlikely the FAA or UAS industry will establish an entire set of design standards from scratch," the report notes. "As additional UAS airworthiness options are considered and UAS airworthiness design and operational standards are developed, type certification may be more efficiently and effectively achieved." 

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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