For five years now I have worked full-time in the UAV and model airplane industries. Let me explain what is going on and why.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
A UAV is a flying vehicle that receives high level control commands from an operator on the ground. I hesitate to call this operator a pilot, since they typically have no full-size or RC model airplane experience. More than anything else, operating a UAV is like playing a video game.
Sometimes UAVs fly autonomously. From the time they take-off until the time they land, the UAV receives no instructions from a human. This is relatively rare today, but will become more commonplace in the future as sensor and computing technologies improve.
At first developing a UAV was very expensive, so most of the early applications were military in nature. Over time the sensors, computers, and other electronics necessary to make them work have dramatically shrunk in size and in cost.
Today, a very sophisticated miniaturized UAV control board can be assembled for as little as $100. With reduced costs and increased reliability, the number of potential commercial UAV applications has exploded.
Commercial and military UAVs are used almost exclusively in reconnaissance missions. These involve gathering information and either transmitting it to the ground in real time or storing it for later study.
A UAV is a flying robot. Commercial and military robots are primarily used for missions that, for one reason or another, they would rather not have a human doing them. These missions usually fall under the categories of “dull, dirty or dangerous”. For example, robots were used to go into the Fukushima nuclear reactor after the accident because of the dangers involved. Surveillance missions for UAVs fall under the category of dull, though sometimes the UAV has to fly over enemy territory.
Some futurists believe that robots will one day be able to fill any job previously held by a human. It is not unreasonable to believe that one day robotic UAVs will be used to transport cargo or even passengers.
National Airspace System and the FAA
With 50,000 daily flights and employing about 15,000 air traffic controllers, the National Airspace System (NAS) of the United States is complex. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the branch of the federal government responsible for regulating the NAS to promote safe use by everyone.
With an annual budget of $16 billion dollars, the FAA is a large and complex organization. Like any other large bureaucracy, it can take a long time for the FAA to react to changing needs.
See and Avoid
For over 100 years the guiding safety principle in the NAS is referred to as see and avoid. The FAA calls them “Right of Way” rules. Pilots are responsible for constantly keeping an eye out for other air traffic and acting promptly to avoid hitting it. The exception is flight under the instrument flight rules, where you hand over responsibility for see and avoid to an air traffic controller on the ground. The FAA still requires pilots flying under instrument rules to practice see and avoid as best as possible. Because of the complexities involving instrument rules, the vast majority of non-commercial civilian flights are done under the visual flight rules, where an air traffic controller is only contacted when taking off or landing.
Detect, Sense, and Avoid
UAVs today are not able to follow the FAA guidelines for see and avoid in the NAS. They are simply not sophisticated enough to sense other approaching aircraft and act to avoid a collision. Even if there is a human ground operator, UAVs cannot follow these rules because of time lags and sensor limitations.
There is much ongoing research into this problem. Some of it is being funded by the FAA and NASA. Unfortunately, the consensus is that it will be many years before a totally unrestricted UAV flying in the NAS will be able to match the level of safety demonstrated by other manned aircraft.
The Situation Today
Right now UAVs have to follow the rules put in place by the FAA for remote-controlled model aircraft many years ago. The rules basically state that the ground operator must be in constant visual contact with the UAV and the UAV can only fly 400 feet high (120 m). Why 400 feet? Because full-size airplanes have to fly at least 500 feet above the ground.
It shouldn’t be hard to see that these rules severely limit the potential commercial applications for UAVs.
The FAA today is under enormous pressure to permit broader use of the NAS by UAVs. How do you permit broader use of UAVs without compromising the safety of the NAS? That is a very tricky problem, and it has taken years for the FAA to feel it is in a position to implement a plan.
A few days ago the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate passed a bill requiring the FAA to open the NAS for use by UAVs by September 2015. The President is expected to sign the bill into law soon.
The bill is complex, delineating various categories of UAV users and various deadlines. For example, law enforcement agencies and firefighters will be given access first due to the public safety nature of their work.
The FAA will not be publishing their integration plan for another nine months. We will have to wait and see exactly what their plan looks like. I expect it to classify UAVs into different categories depending on their weight and flying speed. The different categories will have different sets of rules apply to them.
No Change for RC
The good news is that the rules regulating RC aircraft that weigh 55 pounds or less are not expected to change much, if at all. The AMA (Academy of Model Aeronautics) has done an excellent job communicating to the congressmen the needs of its members. Thanks, AMA.