By Ed Bolen, President and CEO, NBAA
Small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) represent tremendous potential for a wide range of municipal planning, maintenance, and developmental uses. As more communities explore possible uses for UAS operations, it seems more jobs become apparent for them to fill.
Until recently, however, large-scale efforts to deploy sUAS within the United States were stymied by a lack of defined regulations for the commercial operation of those vehicles. That changed this in June, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced the newly-created Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) 14 CFR Part 107, applying to commercial use of any UAS weighing less than 55 lbs.
Among the requirements under Part 107 include a maximum sUAS operating altitude of 400' above ground level in daytime VFR conditions, within visual line-of-sight (VLOS) of the operator or observers. Unmanned aircraft may not be operated over people on the ground not involved in the UAS flight, and all UAS must yield right-of-way to all other aircraft.
Part 107 also formally redefines the sUAS operator as a remote pilot in command (PIC) who must be at least 16 years of age, but is not required to be certified to pilot manned aircraft. New remote PICs will be required to pass an initial aeronautical exam at an approved FAA testing center, with subsequent recurrent testing every two years.
Due to go into effect by the end of August, Part 107 will ultimately replace the agency's previous practices of issuing certificates of authorization (COA), or exemptions under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.
Within the business aviation community alone, more than 25 industries had awaited the FAA's final rule governing sUAS before deploying those systems as part of their normal operations. While the new regulations provide a path for some uses, to see the full potential of UAS realized issues such as the ability of these systems to "detect and avoid”" other aircraft must also be resolved.
Paul McDuffee, vice president of government relations and strategy for Insitu, a UAS manufacturer, said that the industry is in the process of addressing these technical challenges. "The first is DAA [detect and avoid]," said McDuffee. "How do we keep these vehicles from conflicting with manned aircraft in the national airspace system."
For true autonomous operation, a UAS must be able to operate throughout the national airspace system (NAS), including areas in close proximity to manned aircraft. Acknowledging concerns of the manned aircraft community about UAS operations in shared airspace, experts emphasize the need for extensive testing and verification before UAS can operate throughout the NAS.
The second technical challenge is to ensure that UAS command and control functions are secure. There must be reliable communication between the operator and the UAS, effectively countering cyber-attacks while also operating on discreet frequencies.
Although the current emphasis is on resolving both concerns with larger UAS, the technology is expected to eventually scale down to smaller unmanned aircraft.
One Tool, Many Uses
Many companies have already received FAA approval under Section 333 to deploy sUAS to perform missions as diverse as real estate and wedding photography, crop surveying, inspecting and monitoring of oil pipelines and electrical power lines, and tracking wildlife migratory patterns. Insurance companies and accident investigators, including Britain’s Air Accident Investigation Branch, have even started to use s-UAS to survey accident sites.
NBAA member company Duke Energy Corporation has a UAS project team, composed of personnel from the company's flight department and an emerging-technology department, tasked with exploring possible UAS uses, said Jeff Detig, CAM [certified aviation manager] and senior pilot for Duke Energy, and a member of NBAA's UAS Subcommittee.
Detig noted that UAS will ultimately complement Duke Energy's manned aircraft operations, "but we don't see it replacing anything outright. Our end goal is to have three distinct branches within our flight operation: corporate fixed wing and rotor, utility line patrol rotor and a dedicated UAS branch."
In particular, Detig said that unmanned aircraft promise to be able to perform such tasks as power line patrol and infrared detection of "hot spots" on those lines, inspection of hard-to-access distribution system areas, and solar panel inspection.
"That said, we don't expect line patrol shifting over to UAS in the short term due to line-of-sight restrictions, but there are so many other potential uses to explore," Detig continued. "For example, UAS can be used now to conduct overall property and facilities inspections. It takes ground crews an entire day to inspect an acre of solar panels, but that can be done in 20 minutes with a UAS streaming data back to the operator."
Christopher M. Broyhill, CAM, serves as transportation director for another NBAA member, Exelon Business Services. Exelon manages several municipal power companies, including Illinois utility provider Commonwealth Edison, which received a Section 333 certificate of exemption from the FAA to conduct research and development flights, employing a small number of UAS in a variety of missions.
"We've been pursuing UAS for some time, particularly on missions such as emergency response to storms," Broyhill said. "With UAS, we don't need to send out a ladder truck crew when lines are damaged; instead, a three-person team (one pilot, two observers) can survey and verify the damage and determine whether a repair crew is needed.
"It's a triage approach, basically," Broyhill continued. "We already have general consensus that it will be more efficient to conduct initial inspections [with UAS] over the existing system."
Duke Energy has conducted testing of different quadrotor UAS through contract operators, but the company's long-term plan is to bring UAS operations in-house once formal regulations for the industry are issued by the FAA.
"We want control over UAS operations so that we may maintain safety standards and reduce liability," Detig explained. "Ultimately, we see UAS as part of our flight department's standard operating procedures, safety management system and other aspects of a corporate flight department.
"We're also concerned about data encryption and security," Detig added. "We've already seen how UAS control can be hacked, along with the data transmitted between the vehicles and operators. That's a big focus right now, and from what I've seen, there's still some work to be done in those regards.
"This area of aviation is certainly not going away," Detig concluded. "Interest has only increased year-over-year, which is why we formed this team to explore our options. There's simply too great a need for UAS throughout the company."
UAS Operations in Spotlight at NBAA-BACE 2016
The safe and responsible operation of sUAS will also be in the spotlight throughout the 2016 NBAA Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition (NBAA-BACE) coming to Orlando, FL from Nov. 1-3. NBAA-BACE is expected to bring together more than 27,000 current and prospective business aircraft owners, manufacturers, and customers at the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC).
On the show's first day, a panel of industry experts will review the current state of various national, state and local requirements for use of UAS in the United States, and discuss technological and procedural advancements and how to support end goals of routine accommodation in a safe and efficient manner.
Some 1,100 exhibitors that will be on-hand to demonstrate their products and services to attendees, while approximately 100 business aircraft, ranging from single-engine piston aircraft to large intercontinental business jets, will be parked between two static display areas on the exhibit floor and at nearby Orlando Executive Airport (ORL).
The event will also feature more than 50 education sessions addressing a wide range of regulatory and operational issues, while also providing numerous opportunities for those within the business aviation community to gather with their peers and share their ideas for strengthening this valuable American industry.
Participation by key policymakers and influential speakers is a hallmark of NBAA events, and NBAA-BACE will continue this proud tradition. Confirmed speakers at the event's Opening General Session include U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske, who has consistently demonstrated his willingness to work with the business aviation community to reduce delays, streamline operations, and facilitate entry into the United States without sacrificing its mission of security.
Also speaking at Tuesday's session will be Pulitzer-prize winning author David McCullough, who will focus on "Lessons in Leadership" in a keynote address aimed at the current and future industry leaders within the business aviation community.
In light of the U.S. presidential election taking place less than a week after NBAA-BACE, political veterans James Carville and Mary Matalin will return to NBAA-BACE to provide their enlightening and entertaining perspectives about the 2016 election year landscape at the Second-Day Opening Session on Wednesday, Nov. 2. Anticipated topics range from the race for the White House, to today's most important political issues, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at Washington politics.
NBAA-BACE provides a single, powerful, and impressive venue demonstrating the size, scope, and diversity of the global business aviation community, ensuring that the industry's value is understood at all levels. I invite readers of Expansion Solutions to also come to Orlando this November, and experience the most important three days in the international business aviation community.