While the FAA made a significant advancement in the integration of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System (NAS) for commercial with the announcement of six testing sites, manufacturers and industry experts believe the nation is lagging behind other countries in taking advantage of this new technology. The blame is lay on a lack of regulatory development and market-stunting privacy concerns, according to witnesses who testified during a Senate transportation committee hearing about UAS integration.
Yamaha's RMAX unmanned helicopter. Photo, courtesy of Yamaha.
Companies are looking to use UAS commercially now for surveillance, crop-dusting, aerial photography and filmmaking, among other uses, but they face regulatory limitations. Currently, for the commercial use of UAS, the FAA only issues Certificates of Authorization to public agencies. Experts such as Missy Cummings, the director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, says that this type of regulation is limiting the nation's ability to reap the economic benefits of UAS technology.
"While I applaud the FAA's recent, but very late, naming of its six Unmanned Aerial System test sites I, like most experts in this field, agree that it is unlikely that the FAA will meet its charge to open our national airspace to drones by 2015.
“While we are making some progress towards this goal, the United States is lagging, not leading, the commercial drone boom," said Cummings, whose lab focuses on the multifaceted interactions of humans and autonomous systems in complex socio-technical settings.
Cummings said that, currently, in Japan UAS account for more than 90 percent of all crop dusters, and in the U.K., UAS are used for aerial photography, crop monitoring and pizza delivery. Companies in China and Australia are already delivering packages with commercial UAS, an operation that Amazon is still at least five years away from deploying in the United States, due to the regulatory limitations.
So why is the U.S. lagging behind in UAS integration? FAA Administrator Michael Huerta says that his agency is principally concerned with the safety of the NAS, and that while the commercial UAS industry is exciting, he believes the agency still needs to research and develop regulations and certifications for the technology.
"From homeland security, emergency management and law enforcement, to food and package delivery, the potential uses for UAS technology are limitless," Huerta told the Senate committee.
"Realistically, neither the technical nor operational capabilities necessary exist today to implement the opportunities described by visionaries, but their promises for 21st century conveniences are compelling," he said.
However, Henio Arcangeli, vice president of corporate planning at Yamaha Motor Corp., argued that his company and others do have the technical and operational capabilities necessary for commercial UAS operations. For example, the company's RMAX remotely piloted helicopter has been safely used for precision crop dusting in Japan for over 20 years, and recently began operating commercially in Australia and South Korea as well.
For those concerned with what happens when UAS lose the data link between the aircraft and the ground control station and operator, the RMAX has flight stability system, and GPS for speed and hovering. This includes a "loss link" feature, which Arcangeli said guides the 140-pound aircraft to hover in place and then slowly land if there is any loss of radio communication with a rotor brake, automatically bringing the propeller to a full stop within seconds of landing.
Yet Yamaha is currently unable to sell the RMAX to farmers in the U.S. because they're unable to obtain a COA. The company has worked with civil aviation authorities in other countries to develop pilot training and certification programs, including: a pilot theory exam, and UAS training course and certificate of radio proficiency, a model that could be adopted right now if not for the FAA's cautious approach towards researching and developing regulations for commercial UAS operations.
Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), expressed concern with privacy issues over surveillance from commercial UAS during the hearing, a notion that both Cummings and Arcangeli argue is essentially irrelevant in a world where a stranger could snap a photograph of Calabrese or anyone else with a smart phone without them even knowing it.
An interesting aspect of Yamaha’s desire to operate its RMAX unmanned helicopter commercially is that it is operated within line of sight of the ground operator and flies at an altitude of about 16 feet, far below the airspace in which manned aircraft operate. If companies are not able to obtain operating permits for that type of technology, it shows that the U.S. is many years away from allowing the commercial use of UAS for uses beyond line of sight operations, which would require aircraft equipped with ADS-B, sense and avoid technologies, and enough bandwidth and electromagnetic spectrum to allow for secure communications between the UAS and a ground control station within civilian airspace.
Although the U.S. is clearly behind other countries in terms of UAS integration, Huerta said the FAA is moving closer to the goal set out by Congress in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2012, which instructs the agency to provide integration by 2015. At least initially, that integration will mostly be smaller UAS under 55 pounds that operate within line of sight of the pilot on the ground.