[Avionics Today May 16, 2014] The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is currently working with several industries to expedite the approval of some limited commercial Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) operations prior to finalizing its rules for UAS, according to a speech given by the agency's UAS Integration Manager Jim Williams at AUVSI (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International) 2014.
Some of the commercial applications the FAA is expected to allow prior to finalizing the rules include UAS power line inspections and filmmaking. AUVSI and other groups, along with UAS manufacturers such as Yamaha, have been critical of the agency's slow progress with integrating unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System (NAS).
"Companies from four industries have approached the FAA and are considering filing exemption requests which would begin the process. These industries include precision agriculture, film making, power line and pipe line inspection, and oil and gas flare stack inspection," said Williams.
"The work using Section 333 to authorize some UAS operations is just beginning. I want to be sure that it is clear that the operations we are talking about are specific, limited, and low-risk to people and property on the ground," Williams added.
Despite selecting six testing sites for research, AUVSI and other groups, along with UAS manufacturers such as Yamaha, have been critical of the agency's slow progress with integrating unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System (NAS). UAS are currently being used commercially in countries outside of the U.S., such as Japan, China and Australia, although the common trait shared among those countries is a lower volume of air traffic from manned General Aviation (GA) and air transport aircraft, which present a much lower risk of UAS collisions with those aircraft.
Rep. Frank LoBiondo echoed Williams' comments during his keynote speech at AUVSI 2014.
"There are things that we can do today, and I am desperate, as you are, to see that potential unleashed, to let us show the rest of the nation what is available to us and what the potential is. This is an enormous frontier for us with tremendous potential," LoBiondo said.
Williams also presented several recent incidents that provide examples of why the agency is taking its time to integrate Remotely Piloted Aircraft into the world's busiest airspace. Last fall, a small, open-rotor hexa-copter used to film the running of the bulls at the Virginia Motor speedway crashed into the crowd during the event, causing several minor injuries. During an investigation of the incident, the operator said he believed the crash was the result of a battery failure.
During the Endure Batavia Triathlon in Australia earlier this year, an athlete was injured by a small UAS that was filming the event that fell from the sky and hit her in the head. Australian authorities investigated the incident and learned that the operator believed the crash was the result of interference of numerous Wi-Fi enabled devices being used in the area that caused interference with the unmanned aircraft's command and control link.
These incidents have a negative impact on public perception of the UAS industry, which is mainly limited to military use of "drones" in wars fought in the Middle East. However, there also were examples presented at the show of how UAS can save lives. For example, Insitu Pacific released information about its recent demonstration
using a Scan Eagle UAS to downlink real-time streaming video monitoring the movement of a wildfire in Australia's Wollemi National Park. The Scan Eagle was operated at night, and was able to monitor and report on the movement of the fire, which is difficult to perform at low altitude with manned aircraft due to the high risk factors involved.
The mixture between the safety and risk factors involved with UAS, and the potential commercial use of UAS for aerial cargo transportation, precision agriculture and the distribution of Wi-Fi among other future uses of these aircraft is the biggest challenge that the FAA faces in regulation. Operators want to start using aircraft for these applications within the next five years, but in the United States safety will come first, Williams said.
"As we enter these unchartered times, safety remains our number one priority," said Williams. "Our challenge is to integrate unmanned aircraft into the busiest, most complex airspace in the world. Introduction of unmanned aircraft into America’s airspace must take place incrementally and with the interest of safety first."