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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Editor's note: 2015: UAS Odyssey

by Emily Feliz

The unmanned aviation industry is poised for some rather explosive growth in the next few years, if the discussions on the floor of the Association of Unmanned Vehicles Systems International (AUVSI) are to be believed. Hundreds of professionals gathered in Las Vegas last month, displaying airframes of all sizes, payloads of varying capabilities and missions of all sorts, ready and willing to deploy these systems around the world.

But the roadblock to this explosive growth is FAA, according to show attendees. FAA, backed by a Congressional mandate to integrate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System (NAS), is tasked with creating a roadmap, a plan, to give UAS manufacturers and users access to the airspace. A big task to be sure, and one that is mandated to be complete by 2015. This integration is a key component of FAA’s multi-billion-dollar airspace modernization initiative Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen).

“We have a fantastic opportunity to lead the world of aviation to get it done,” said David Vos, formerly of Rockwell Collins, at the convention. “It is quite reasonable to accommodate UAS into the NAS by 2015 … 2015 is doable, but it is not doable at the current pace. But some sort of deadline is good.”

The aviation industry knows they need to integrate UASs into the NAS, but what the integration will look like and what exact steps are needed to ensure the safety of operators of manned and unmanned aircraft in the same airspace are unclear.

The current pace isn’t all that quick, as the industry gears up to move forward with the mandate. The aviation industry knows they need to integrate UASs into the NAS, but what the integration will look like and what exact steps are needed to ensure the safety of operators of manned and unmanned aircraft in the same airspace are unclear. Start with small UASs? Focus on specific missions? Experts at AUVSI called on FAA, along with JPDO and other industry stakeholders, to take the lead on the discussion to figure out how to move forward. After all, 2015 is not that far away.

“The advantage of the legislation is that it is forcing function. It is more than a significant challenge for integration by 2015. But the law doesn’t say full integration; it just says integration. FAA has to lay out the full plan, the pathway to get to full integration by the earliest possible date … until you lay that out you’re not going to be able to say when full integration will occur,” said Chuck Johnson, manager of the UAS in the NAS project at NASA.

My takeaway from this panel discussion is in theory the industry could achieve integration, but it’s not going to happen. Technologically speaking, manufacturers are ready, but regulatory hurdles abound. In addition the industry faces the big task of changing public perceptions of the “drones” that could darken the airspace, invading our privacy. A deadline is a good goal to strive for, but at least in this case that goal just isn’t going to happen.

“Full integration by 2015 is a significant challenge that I’m not sure is achievable,” said Heidi Williams, vice president air traffic services and modernization for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA).

“The problem with 2015 is the lack of focus... we’re trying to look at a picture too big,” said Tom Bachman, vice president, new products and technology at AAI Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

The real shame is the suppliers and air frame manufacturers are ready, willing and able to capitalize on heightened interest in the civilian applications for UAS.

“Civil is a viable market,” said Steve Morrow, president and CEO of Bingen, Wash.-based Insitu, citing missions in resource management, border patrol and search and rescue, but “they are all dependent on FAA making a timeline” for UAS integration into the NAS.

UAS integration will be the one of the topics discussed at this year’s Avionics for NextGen conference, to be held Sept. 18 in Atlantic City, N.J. Other topics include closing NextGen’s business case, global harmonization and public-private partnerships. For more information, or to register, visit www.avionicsfornextgen.com.

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