The use of unmanned aircraft systems—also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or, more commonly, “drones”—has skyrocketed around the world, expanding far beyond their initial military applications and prompting legislative development across several nations. According to the Consumer Electronic Association, 2014 saw the sale of 250,000 consumer drones, bringing the year’s UAV sales to some $84 million, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has projected that the private drone industry will reach a valuation of $90 billion within 10 years. Drones are not only a popular outlet for aviation and technology hobbyists, but they have also become an innovative tool for several commercial sectors.
On May 6, 2015, the FAA launched the UAS Focus Area Pathfinders initiative, an industry partnership aimed at exploring the potential applications for small, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in the public and private spheres. The regulatory body announced its plans to collaborate with leading companies in a variety of industries in order to research safe UAS operations, thus informing future legislation that could expand the scope of UAS applications in US airspace.
The FAA unveiled the new initiative in Atlanta, Georgia, at Unmanned Systems 2015, an international gathering of experts in drones, intelligent robotics, and other unmanned system technologies. During the conference, the administration shared its initial focus areas for the project and introduced its first industry partners.
Blazing a Trail
The first phase of the Pathfinder initiative involved explorations into three drone flight categories. To explore the safe performance of visual line-of-sight (VLOS) operations, in which the UAS never leaves the range of the pilot’s unaided eye, the FAA enlisted the CNN news channel to test the potential of drones to assist with newsgathering in highly populated areas.
The FAA recruited UAS manufacturer PrecisionHawk to support its research into extended visual line-of-sight operations (EVLOS), which comprise drone flights carried out beyond visual range but supported by data from ground-based command and control centers. The FAA tasked PrecisionHawk with exploring potential UAS applications in the agricultural sector, specifically crop monitoring for precision agriculture.
Additionally, the FAA, set out to investigate the feasibility of UAS operations beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) in rural or isolated areas. For this flight class, in which the pilot generally uses onboard cameras to maneuver the drone around potential obstacles, the administration called upon BNSF Railroad to investigate the command-and-control challenges associated with using drones for rail system infrastructure inspections.
While spurring activity in the realm of commercial drone use, the FAA also offered new support to drone hobbyists. The FAA paired the announcement of the Pathfinders initiative with the release of B4UFLY, a smartphone app that lets recreational drone pilots know whether it is safe and legal to pilot a UAS in specific locations.
Expanding the Initiative
On October 7, 2015, FAA Deputy Administrator Mike Whitaker appeared before the House Aviation Subcommittee to take part in a hearing entitled, “Ensuring Aviation Safety in the Era of Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” He addressed the growing safety risk posed by UAS flights conducted near US airports, citing a fivefold increase in pilot reports of unmanned aircraft since 2014. The FAA now receives over 100 reports a month, and to address this, it has recruited Aerospace technology firm CACI International Inc. to join the Pathfinders program.
CACI has leveraged its expertise to develop a system to detect and identify unmanned aircraft within five miles of an airport. By detecting radio signals transmitted between a UAV and its operator, the company’s prototype system, known as SkyTracker, can force drone landings and pinpoint the operator’s location. The FAA will work with CACI to implement the tracking technology on a test basis at select airports.
In a recent staff briefing on Capitol Hill, representatives from the FAA and its industry partners detailed a number of other recent developments and achievements within the program. As of November 2015, PrecisionHawk has completed initial testing on a low-altitude traffic and airspace safety (LATAS) system—a platform that provides “safety as a service” via cellular and satellite networks. The LATAS system uses state-of-the-art airspace management technologies to bolster the safety of drone operations, enabling features such as aircraft tracking, dynamic geofencing, and detect and avoid capabilities. PrecisionHawk developed the UAS safety tool with support from Verizon, which offered its LTE network, and Harris, which provided ADS-B network capabilities. The initiative found an additional industry partner in DigitalGlobe, a space imagery and geospatial content provider that allowed the companies to access its big data system for the purpose of documenting and analyzing LATAS test flight data.
In another recent test, Pathfinders affiliate BNSF Railroad partnered with UAV developer Insitu to carry out the first commercial BVLOS operation in the contiguous United States. Over one week in October 2015, Insitu’s ScanEagle fixed-wing unmanned aircraft completed multiple flights along a 132-mile section of BNSF-operated railroad. Coordinated with nearby airports and military installations, the experimental flights were not monitored by ground-based observers or other aircraft. The ScanEagle successfully provided BNSF with real-time video throughout its flights, thus presenting potential applications for future railway monitoring. Technologies such as this offer BNSF and other railway operators the ability to detect bridge outages, eroded or warped tracks, washouts, and other safety hazards before a train encounters them.
Surveying the Public
The UAS Focus Area Pathfinders initiative is just one element of the FAA’s efforts to develop comprehensive legislation that expands UAS access while ensuring public safety. The regulatory body first proposed a set of rules regarding UAS weighing less than 55 pounds in February 2015, limiting operations to non-recreational, visual line-of-sight flights during daylight hours. The proposed rules also outlined additional requirements for registration, certification, and operational height and speed limits for small unmanned aircraft. However, the regulations are not finalized, as the FAA initiated a 60-day commentary period for public feedback on the new regulations. Going forward, it will draw on nearly 4,500 public comments, as well as the results of the Pathfinders study, to develop the final draft of its UAS regulations.