Feb. 1, 2016
There may have been some initial questions about the potential for the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in business aviation, and although there are lingering concerns about how to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system, there now is little doubt that UAS will be used to perform a variety of aerial tasks for a wide range of entrepreneurial companies.
However, efforts to deploy UAS for business aviation purposes on a large scale within the United States have been stymied by a lack of regulations for the industry, along with a few remaining technology challenges.
More than 25 industries are waiting on the FAA’s final rule governing small unmanned aircraft (those weighing less than 55 pounds) before deploying these systems as part of their normal operations. In addition, 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.
As the FAA continues its work to finalize UAS regulations, members of the business aviation community are moving ahead with their research into possible applications for UAS and stand ready to deploy those systems once formal operating rules are in place.
One Tool, Many Uses
Meanwhile, many companies have already received FAA approval (through a Section 333 certificate of exemption) to deploy small UAS (s-UAS) 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.
Right now, 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, 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.”
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.
– JEFF DETIG, CAM, Senior Pilot, Duke Energy Corporation
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.”
TECHNOLOGICAL HURDLES MUST BE CLEARED BEFORE POTENTIAL OF UAS CAN BE REALIZED
Bryan Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, says he has not found a business sector yet that doesn’t stand to benefit from unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). He notes that UAS will represent an $80 billion industry over 10 years once regulations are in place to guide operations.
Brad Hayden, president and CEO of UAS service provider Robotic Skies, agrees. “The integration of small UAS is already happening, and as a result, aviation is about to experience a transformation and expansion of capabilities that we have not seen in our industry, literally, in decades.”
At last count, more than 2,000 companies – including many members of the Fortune 500 – have been granted Section 333 exemptions by the FAA to fly small UAS under line-of-sight restrictions.
UAS applications, including in business aviation, have a bright future. But widespread deployment of UAS won’t be possible until at least two major technological hurdles are cleared.
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 through Class G, D and E airspace as it transitions to and from operating environments in Class A and special-use airspace. Although the current emphasis is on applying DAA technology to larger UAS, George Ligler with PMEI, Inc. said he expects the technology to eventually scale down to smaller unmanned aircraft.
“Platforms capable of flying into Class A will [need to] have ADS-B Out, at least a Mode C transponder and various additional equipment,” said Ligler, who also noted that RTCA Special Committee 228 is working to determine UAS initial minimum operational performance standards, which he expects to be released by early 2017.
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.
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 national airspace system.
Parimal Kopardekar, principal investigator for NASA’s NextGen Airspace Project, encourages the UAS community to share their own DAA research data with the agency so that a more robust UAS traffic management framework may come to fruition. “We want to be proactive and figure out system needs and applications in a way that avoids mistakes ahead of time.”