The integration of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) into civilian airspace presents the next frontier in the air transportation industry. And it is one that faces numerous technological, regulatory and public perception issues as it moves forward towards its 2015 deadline.
(Boeing Phantom Eye, a liquid hydrogen-powered high altitude long endurance (HALE) UAS used for persistent intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and communications. Photo, courtesy of Boeing.)
According to a new report from the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), the integration of UAS into civil airspace is projected to generate $89 billion over the next decade. The report states that today the U.S. flies more than 1 million unmanned flight hours annually, and the Department of Defense operates more than 7,000 UAS; and that usage is expected to grow with integration into civil airspace.
FAA is targeting 2015 for integration of UAS into the National Airspace System (NAS), however that date will be hard to achieve due to the budget and regulatory challenges faced by the agency. There remains an issue of certification of new UAS technologies, and allocation of airspace for UAS to operate in alongside other commercial and private aircraft.
Additionally, securing the necessary bandwidth and electromagnetic spectrum for civilian UAS communications between the aircraft and the ground station is another matter the industry must overcome.
“This is an issue a lot of people don’t think about with UAS,” said George Novak, assistant vice president of Civil Aviation at AIA.
“You’re looking at a feedback from the vehicle, of both avionics data, so you have position, engine speed, altitude, everything that’s coming back, that a pilot would normally have in front of him or her in the aircraft. All of that is being transmitted back and forth. At the same time, as we’re looking at a see and avoid mechanism, where you possibly have full video being transmitted from the aircraft — this requires an extensive amount of bandwidth, and this has not been contemplated in allocation of bandwidth as we’ve looked at it for other uses, such as cellular telephones, HD TV, radio communications and other things. Reallocation of the spectrum and that bandwidth is something that we’re examining both on the national basis through the FCC and on an international basis through the International Telecommunications Union (ITU),” Novak added.
The U.S. government has presented the option of fixed satellite service to ITU, which is in abundance and can safely support projected growth of UAS over the next decade. Security issues can be addressed through hardware modification and design for UAS networks and encryption of the signal, according to Novak.
“Progress has been made in obtaining additional dedicated radio-frequency spectrum for UAS operations, but additional dedicated spectrum, including satellite spectrum, is still needed to ensure secure and continuous communications for both small and large UAS operations,” according to a spokesperson for FAA’s UAS Integration Office.
Other concerns expressed by lawmakers, stakeholders and airspace users have been the issue of how UAS will operate in the same airspace as commercial aircraft.
Novak said the deployment of NextGen, and the shift from radar to a satellite-based air traffic control system in the United States, will help to automate the allocation of airspace and traffic avoidance between UAS and manned aircraft.
Additionally, this will open up additional civilian applications for UAS, including crop surveillance, firefighting, aerial photography and more.
“I don’t know that UAS manufacturers are really developing platforms with a specific market in mind, but I think that manufacturers understand that the United States and the world are going to be big users of unmanned aircraft, for a variety of reasons, sports and media coverage, real estate photography, weather monitoring, environmental monitoring and more,” said Gretchen West, executive vice president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).
Related: Unmanned Systems News