For each of the past two years that I served as chairman of an avionics conference in Amsterdam, two prominent advocates of mainstreaming unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in civil airspace challenged, even cajoled the audience to get involved. The tag team of Peter van Blyenburgh, president of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, and John S. Walker, co-chairman of RTCA Special Committee 203, makes for an entertaining and informative presentation. This year’s presentation, however, was tinged with disappointment. That’s because the long road to hoe before UAS fly in civil airspace without either special authorization or an experimental ticket from FAA is getting longer.
We have no standards, no airworthiness norms, no certification norms," van Blyenburgh complained. "The only thing that can fly today is military UAS in military airspace" — except, he said, in Switzerland, where an unmanned aircraft can fly in non-segregated airspace with a chase plane during the day and with strobe lights at night. Walker noted that he was speaking in Amsterdam at the same time that SC-203, formed four years ago to develop recommended minimum performance standards for UAS, was holding its 12th plenary in San Diego. "Our first deliverable was last year — the guidance material for small unmanned aircraft systems," he said of the committee’s work. "The FAA has taken that now and created an Advisory Rulemaking Committee, and so we expect within a year to have FAA issuing regulations on operating small UASs without a certificate of authorization."
But that seeming progress doesn’t match the enthusiasm that attended UAS integration just a year ago. "The dates keep slipping to the right. The only way we’re going to have the dates go to the left is to have industry involvement," Walker said. He equated UAS integration to the billions of dollars and decades spent fielding TCAS on passenger aircraft. Developing a comparable "sense-and-avoid" capability for pilotless aircraft looks like a harder nut to crack. "The costs that I’ve seen for the kinds of unmanned aircraft systems to operate in complex airspace makes that [TCAS] figure look pale," Walker said. "Right now, that could be a real challenge."
For an update on what transpired in San Diego, I spoke by telephone with Kenneth Geiselhart, Walker’s co-chairman on SC-203. "We have moved things to the right," Geiselhart confirmed. "Basically, what we have done is a very comprehensive assessment of what it would take to complete the DO-264 process." SC-203 is using the methodology of DO-264, "Guidelines For Approval of The Provision And Use Of Air Traffic Services Supported By Data Communications," as specified by its Terms of Reference.
"That then leads to the development of the UAS system-level MASPS (Minimum Aviation System Performance Standards), with subsequent control communications and sense-and-avoid MASPS," Geiselhart said. "That is a whole series of product waterfalls that are targeted right now. In the briefing that I gave, we complete the sense-and-avoid MASPS in 2019."
The outer date is a worst-case scenario, he stressed. "It’s acknowledging the need to apply a rigorous systems engineering approach in support of DO-264 processes. This is a conservative, worst-case scenario. We’re looking at alternative strategies where we can actually try and divide the technical assessments into two steps and expedite the process on the order of two years."
When he first became involved with SC-203 last June, the "notional work plan," anticipated completing the project in the 2012-2013 timeframe, Geiselhart said. "But I would add, that was not based on a solid, baseline work plan," he said. "This activity over the course of the last three plenaries has zeroed in on a baseline work plan with a technical approach, technical scope and a defined systems engineering process."
The UAS community is resigned to civil airspace integration being a long haul, although not happily so. "Clearly and obviously, the industry does not like the timeline," said Daryl Davidson, executive director of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. "I think most of the people involved with it begrudgingly accept it, and I think that everyone first and foremost would agree that the paramount concern is safety.... But I think a lot of people would certainly be very interested in finding any ways they can to accelerate the process."