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Thursday, July 16, 2015

UAS Technology, Regulation Present Barriers to Small Business

Juliet Van Wagenen

[Avionics Today 07-16-2015] With the FAA well on its way to publishing a final rule on Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) integration into the National Airspace System (NAS), small businesses are calling for faster and more lucid regulation. Representatives from industry, entrepreneurs and UAS activist organizations gathered with lawmakers in Washington, D.C., at the “Taking Flight: Small Business Utilization of Unmanned Aircraft” Senate hearing for the Committee on Small Business. The hearing covered privacy issues, commercial opportunities, and the capabilities small businesses need from the FAA to thrive.

Small Unmanned Aircraft System. Photo: Auburn University

“These proposed rules are a critical milestone in the UAS integration process and bring us closer to realizing the tremendous societal and economic benefits of this technology,” Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), told lawmakers at the forum, referencing the FAA’s Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) for Operation and Certification of Small UAS issued in February of this year.

But representatives expressed a similar frustration felt across the industry at the limitations imposed by current and proposed UAS law. With certification not anticipated until 2016, participants in the forum urged the need for the FAA to strike a balance between safely integrating UAS and protecting privacy without restricting a small businesses ability to thrive.

“As regulations are put in place to allow commercial operations of UAS there will be a shift away from defense applications and an acceleration of market opportunities. This is particularly true for small UAS due to their accessibility and relatively low cost,” said Tim McLain, professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems at Brigham Young University during the hearing. “Because many UAS application markets are undeveloped and high risk, it is likely that small innovative businesses will be the first. If the costs of authorization to fly are too high then these UAS markets of opportunity will be closed to all but larger companies that are well capitalized.”

If cost barriers prevent competition, McLain believes the industry will suffer, as smaller companies will not be able to participate and bring their products and services to market, which AUVSI projects to have an $80 billion 10-year economic impact in the U.S. alone. If only large companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook are allowed to compete in the market, McLain believes costs for UAS services will remain high and progress will be hampered.

Cost barriers aside, technology and logistic issues also presented some problems.

The inability to conduct night flight operations was limiting for many of the representatives on the panel, particularly Brian Streem, CEO and founder of AeroCine, a company authorized under the FAA’s Section 333 exemption to conduct aerial photography for movie production. Streem noted that his company is losing business due to the constraints.

McLain saw the restrictions that require maintaining operations within a Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) as particularly inhibiting to certain commercial operations, such as oil pipeline monitoring and package delivery. However, ensuring privacy, stability and control of the aircraft in Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BLOS) operations is still a large concern for commercial operators and lawmakers alike, particularly given current cyber security concerns in  aviation.

“There are several technologies that can be brought to bear to enable beyond line of sight flight,” said McLain. “The control of the aircraft or stability of the aircraft technology exists to do that, current autopilot technology makes that possible and of course it’s used in military applications all the time.”

He also points to sense-and-avoid capabilities, for which several options are already in the works. Equipping UAVs with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) capabilities through the FAA’s NextGen program is one option, although it would require all aircraft to be equipped. Radar or machine vision techniques would offer a more robust capability.

When it comes to the security of communications links, McLain concedes that these could be beefed up significantly in commercial or civil applications, and even in some military applications as well.

With technology on its way, privacy and safety are still an enormous issue for the industry, particularly with recent events involving UAS landing on the White House lawn or an incident with firefighting in California in which operators flew a UAS into a scene to try to collect images. Wynne stressed that education may be the only way to prevent further instances of privacy infringement.

“We have people flying now who are not aviators,” said Wynne. “They are violating FAA regulations and those regulations need to be enforced because there are lives and property at stake. The community feels very strongly right now that this is our responsibility to educate our operators.”

While there’s still much ground to cover regarding technology and regulation, industry representatives agreed that any blanket ruling should be implemented as soon as possible to enable the burgeoning commercial UAS business.

“Why has it taken nine years to bring about the current small UAS rule proposal? In the course of these nine years small businesses have come and gone because of a lack of a regulatory framework,” said McLain, who noted that if the FAA were to put the UAS regulations in place, it would help close the gap between the United States UAS industry and other countries, such as China, which have charged ahead.

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