Holding Pattern

Depending on decisions by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Congress, the year 2012 might just be a turning point for the emergent global unmanned aircraft systems industry. Or if existing bureaucracy and political inertia continue, it might just not be.

By the end of January, the FAA was expected to release a set of proposed aviation rules intended to allow significantly expanded access of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the United States national airspace. The draft rules are expected to be followed in mid to late 2012 by a set of draft aviation rules for operation of optionally piloted aircraft as part of long term FAA plans to establish a coherent and routine airspace access regime for all UAS types from 2021.

The proposed small UAS (sUAS) rules are intended to facilitate an initial opening up of civil and commercial markets for unmanned aircraft under a notional weight ceiling of 55lbs (24kg) in the US national airspace. A target of mid to late 2013 is currently proposed for the enactment of those standard operating rules but the date has been sliding for some 18 months.

The draft rules themselves have been prepared by an FAA-sponsored aviation rulemaking committee that was initially set up in April 2008 with the directive to define sUAS airspace requirements within a 20-month period. That target too has considerably slid. A failure to release the draft rules for comment during January as now scheduled would not be a surprise, but would still disappoint.

As currently stands the FAA’s rulemaking schedule proposes restricted airspace access for larger civilian-operated UAS after 2015 with the development of effective operations standards for sense and avoid remaining critical to achieving routine access in the 2021 timeframe. In the interim, the FAA uses a complicated system of temporary Certificates of Authorisation (COA).

These confer experimental status on specific individual aircraft for periods of 12 months as long as they are operated by the public sector rather than private agencies, and are not used for commercial purposes. The arrangement is widely criticised by a frustrated industry, and the FAA is already planning to increase the validity period out to two years for all COAs granted from March 2012 as a concession.

Military Access

Large military UAS such as the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-1 Predator and its larger cousin the MQ-9 Reaper already have limited access arrangements using a combination of temporary restricted corridors and dedicated military airspace. And, with pressure mounting, given versions of the Reaper are already being used by the US Customs and Border Protection Service to patrol the Canadian and Mexican borders.

Pentagon planners hope a combination of airborne radar and optical sensors, transponders such as ADS-B and TCAS and better communication links will provide an effective means of sense and avoid to offset the absence of a pilot aboard the actual aircraft. The FAA says it does not anticipate setting minimum operational performance standards for any type of UAS sense and avoid system before 2019.

While it is prepared to extend the timeframes for COA, FAA policy is not to be moved quickly on any issue. But the scale of industry pressure for sorting out of airspace access arrangements is made clear by the regulator’s own forecasts, the 2011 version of which envisages ‘a fleet of 10,000 active sUAS in five years.

In ten years, the fleet is projected to increase to 25,000 units and grows to 30,000 units by 2030. With the safe integration of sUAS into the National Airspace System, both civil and commercial applications will develop and UAS have the potential to become a major component of commercial aviation within the United States’.

New aviation users are expected to include local police forces, aerial photographers and power distribution companies. Updated estimates are anticipated to be released this February, straight after the draft sUAS rules are released for public comment. But what is clear is that the US is emerging as the largest single domestic market for UAS and the pressure for airspace access is building.

One early version of possible sUAS rules, developed for the FAA by Mitre Corporation and Massachusetts Institute of Technology as part of a 2007 study, proposed allowing FAA-certified pilots to operate unmanned aircraft (UA) of a maximum 4lb (1.5kg) in weight over dense urban areas to a maximum altitude of 400ft.

Proscriptive Rules

In other areas UA of less than 15.9kg would be allowed to fly up to a maximum altitude of 1,200ft. Both classes would be required to fly at less than 40kt and remain subject to line of sight observation and communication. Industry critics worry the rules are too proscriptive and too limiting.

Congress is playing its own role in the slow march. For two years the multi-year re-authorisation bill for the FAA that includes funding for the development of the US’s NextGen air traffic management system has served as a political football and the agency has stumbled by with a series of temporary funding authorisations.

The latest of those is due to expire on 31 January. But one of the provisions in the draft multi-year bill that has survived the two years of legislative turmoil is a requirement for the FAA to prepare a detailed roadmap for integration of UAS of all types into the NAS.

Another survivor is the proposed establishment of several airspace integration test centres around the USA, a requirement that has garnered the direct interest of federal and state legislators, economic development agencies and for obvious reasons, the UAS industry. A primary mission for the test centres is to resolve the standing issue of how best to provide sense and avoid capabilities for all types of UAS, not just large systems like Global Hawk and Reaper.

Congress has moved to ensure the test centre concept survives by building the requirement into a second piece of legislation, the FY2012 US National Defense Authorisation Act which was signed into law by President Obama on 31 December 2011.

That bill requires the Pentagon, in coordination with the FAA, to submit to Congress by the end of March a report that assesses ‘the rate of progress in integrating unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system’ and evaluates ‘the potential for one or more pilot program or programs on such integration at certain test ranges to increase that rate of progress’.

In a classic example of how Congress uses cross agency funding to facilitate specific interests, the Defence bill directs that by the end June the FAA establishes a five-year UAS airspace integration programme using pilot projects at six test ranges reflecting different geographic operating environments.

Five-Year Plan

Its remit requires the FAA to ‘safely designate non-exclusionary airspace for integrated manned and unmanned flight operations in the national airspace system’ with this including coordinating with the Department of Defense and NASA and the FAA’s own NextGen programme.

Unusually for a Defence bill it also requires civil user interests to be included in test project planning. But the programme’s five-year study timeframe raises its own concerns with industry, which now wonder  whether this means existing FAA timelines for opening up airspace will change once again? This month’s release of the proposed sUAS rules takes on a new significance in that regard.

Development of effective airspace access arrangements in the US are mirrored by long-term work in Europe led by Eurocontrol and EASA, with the European Commission itself actively involved in coordination planning since early 2011.

Individual nation planning outside the US-European access has likewise been shaken-up in the past year with the release of a circular on UAS policy requirements by the International Civil Aviation Organisation last March. As unlikely and unexpected as ICAO’s involvement may well appear, its heavyweight but non-binding engagement comes at the end of a six-year background exploration of the possible impact of UAS on civil aircraft operations with the goal of providing better guidance to member states.

The ICAO circular itself makes clear that the organisation only stepped into the leadership role after two years of discussions revealed a gaping hole in international coordination arrangements to address multiple technical and regulatory issues. ‘Because this was a newly emerging technology’, the circular says of its own origins, ‘it was felt that there was a unique opportunity to ensure harmonisation and uniformity at an early stage and that all ICAO efforts should be based on a strategic approach and should support the emerging work of other regulatory bodies’.

The circular’s most immediate impact has been to standardise the language of the sector, replacing a mish-mash of largely undefined terms such as ‘drone’, ‘unmanned air vehicle’ or ‘UAV’ with a new lexicon recognising that the technology involved is, itself, a system. An unmanned aircraft (UA), that is an aircraft which flies with no pilot physically aboard, is an element of an overall system which also comprises ground control stations, communications and datalinks, ground handling architectures. Without those other elements being in place the UA cannot be operated, hence the term UAS.

Terms Defined

UA are themselves divided into two categories in ICAO’s approach, reflecting current and emergent technological capabilities. A UA which is remotely operated by a human pilot is designated a Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA). A UAS based around an RPA is called a Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS). Specific terminology defining a wholly autonomous UA, where no human is involved at any stage of ground or flight operations, remains to be developed because no such aircraft currently exist. What is clear at this point is that a wholly autonomous UA could never be part of an RPAS.

ICAO’s approach to terminology has been readily adopted by the US military, which has been struggling in a losing public relations war against the populist term ‘drone’. The US Air Force emphasises repeatedly in its public statements that there is nothing remotely ‘drone-like’ in the conduct of missile strikes in Pakistan and Yemen using Predator and Reaper UAS. In military parlance a ‘drone’ is a flying target, usually pre-programmed but sometimes flown remotely, that is meant to be shot down as part of training exercises.

ICAO has also recommended retaining commonplace terms such as pilot and crew member to define operations personnel because of the clear legal definitions associated with each under national and international law.

Nor does ICAO see that its work in the market segment is complete. Work is currently underway on preparing mature guidance to provide a basis for standards and recommended practices at the national and international level, with this to be discussed at the 12th Air Navigation Conference in November.

Also on the agenda for that event is an international gap analysis being conducted by ICAO to identify policy and regulatory shortfalls between emerging rules and longstanding Chicago Convention requirements for coherency in international civil aviation arrangements. The term ‘evolutionary’ is frequently used by ICAO working group members to describe that organisation’s likely roadmap.

Countries with some of the most advanced regulatory environments for UAS – Australia and the United Kingdom being two examples – have already picked up the ICAO terminology as part of current rules updates. But given the potential impact of what rules the US might adopt as well as ongoing ICAO work, Australia’s Civil Aviation Authority announced late November that it is planning a rolling review of its airspace rules for UAS of all types, with this including an expansion of access to include all classes of airspace. The FAA will not be rushed, but its guidance is universally awaited.

Peter La Franchi has reported on the global UAS industry for more than a decade. He is currently writing a book exploring the underlying business models used in the sector.

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