[Avionics Today 11-20-2014] As the FAA moves closer to releasing its highly anticipated regulations for small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and the agency's six testing sites throughout the U.S. continue to research the technology, excitement keeps growing in the aviation industry about the potential commercial uses of unmanned aircraft. Following the recent ruling by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determining that the FAA has the authority to regulate the reckless operation of UAS, Avionics Magazine caught up with Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) President and CEO Michael Toscano to discuss some of the potential commercial uses of UAS in the National Airspace System (NAS) and around the world.
Marcus UAV's Zephyr 2 Unmanned Aircraft System, which the company says is ideal for bridge inspections. Photo: Marcus UAV.
"What people may not realize is how many good things this technology can do," said Toscano.
While there seem to be an unlimited number of commercial applications for UAS, AUVSI has categorized the ones with the most immediate potential of becoming a reality in the next several years into four main categories.
"We call them four D’s. Its for the dirty, dangerous, difficult and dull jobs that humans do everyday," said Toscano, adding that the most ripe operational environments for the commercial use of UAS would be those environments that are low in population and have very little air traffic volume.
Recently, the FAA granted exemptions to six aerial photo and video production companies, the first step to allowing the film and television industry the use of UAS in the NAS. There are currently more than 120 pending submissions from individuals and companies seeking similar exemptions to use UAS for other commercial purposes. Here are a few that could become a reality in the near future.
Inspections of structures such as bridges depend heavily on visual assessment from experienced field inspectors. The way that most bridge inspections are handled today would fall into AUVSI's "dangerous" category and could be done much more efficiently with UAS.
"If your job is to do bridge inspections after an earthquake the way you would have to do that today is you would close down a lane of traffic, you put a scaffolding that swings over the side, you’d rappel these people down below and that’s how you would inspect a bridge," said Toscano. "Whereas now, you could take a UAS and you could fly right under a bridge and get all the information that you need. The human beings that know how to do bridge inspections know how to do it. What they need is the visual so they can see if there’s damage done or if there’s corrosion or whatever there might be."
Interestingly enough, Seattle, Wa.-based Marcus UAV already has a Zephyr 2 UAS solution available for $17,995 ready to perform bridge inspections.
While there are farmers in China and other areas of the world already using UAS to monitor their crops and other precision agriculture missions, regulations currently don’t permit this use of UAS in the United States.
"When you talk about agriculture, consider using UAS in Napa Valley to grow grapes so that a farmer can understand when the ideal time is to pick them because they either give off a fermenting smell or they turn a particular color of purple and that’s the ideal time to pick," said Toscano. "A farmer knows that, what he needs to know is when do all the grapes turn that color or give off that smell? Unmanned systems can tell you that."
Members of the Capital Area Innovative Farmers (CAIF) group in Lansing, Mich., together with Michigan State University (MSU) Extension, have proactively engaged in consultations with a Canadian UAV company and MSU Department of Geography GIS unit to seek ways to collaborate and use UAS for precision agriculture in the future.
This is another use of UAS that would fall into AUVSI's "dangerous" category, and it’s also something that companies are already testing and have demonstrated the ability to do. An Unmanned Aircraft System could give regions constantly affected by wildfires the ability to provide better monitoring of the movement of an approaching wildfire.
Earlier this year, Insitu Pacific did exactly that, using a ScanEagle UAS General Dynamics Mediaware's next-generation video exploitation system, D-VEX, streaming full-motion video imagery along with geolocation information in near real-time with downlink assistance from the Amazon cloud. The demonstration occurred in January over the Wollemi National Park, where fires have burned more than 35,000 hectares of bush land since December 2013. The Scan Eagle was operated at night, and was able to monitor and report on the movement of the fire, which is too high risk to perform at low altitudes with manned aircraft.
The ideal environment to perform aerial delivery would be for the transport of supplies to remote locations. While Amazon made headlines last year showcasing its current research regarding UAS deliveries to Amazon customers, there are already examples of this occurring right now. In September, Deutsche Post DHL AG publicly announced its plans to use a parcelcopter to deliver medicine to the small German island of Juist.
This was part of a month-long research project in partnership with Microdrones GmbH, using ground-based pilots that were in contact with Air Traffic Controllers (ATCs) to monitor the delivery, which was performed with a bright yellow quadcopter. "There’s two things that unmanned systems do well, they’re very good at delivery and situational awareness," said Toscano. "It’s a revolutionary technology on an evolutionary path. This is no different than we’ve seen with other revolutionary type technology."
Inspection of pipelines in the Alaskan tundra presents an excellent opportunity for commercial use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems. Performing this using low-flying aircraft can be unsafe for pilots because of the snow and wind conditions that are typical of Alaska. However, by using a camera-equipped UAS, this could be more easily performed. BP's Houston, Texas-based chief technology office has already expressed interest in using UAS for this type of operation.
"Pipeline inspection, that's another dangerous mission that currently is performed by humans," said Toscano. "In those environments you're not going to have a lot of other aircraft to worry about. Once there are regulations in place, that could be a huge market for this type of technology."
Canadian UAS manufacturer ING Robotic Aviation currently recommends using its Serenity UAS platform with mapping capability and three ground-based operators to perform pipeline surveillance and monitoring along the more than 512,000 miles of oil and gas pipeline in Canada.
However, there are still doubts on how UAS could also be used in harmful ways. But Toscano compares it with the risks associated with one of the most widely used technologies in the world, the automobile.
"In the United States we kill 33,000 people every year, we have 6.3 million accidents and it costs us over 300 billion dollars in medical costs and damages, yet we drive cars everyday," said Toscano. "My car and your car has the ability to go 120 miles per hour but if you drove it 120 mph you’d be thrown in jail and if you drove it 120 mph and killed somebody you’d be thrown in jail for a very long period of time. If you use the technology that you’ve been given you’re going to be held accountable. The same thing is true for UAS. If you misuse this technology for what its not supposed to do and if you hurt somebody misusing it, you need to go to jail for a long period of time."