Encouraging Signs for Commercial UAVs

May 20, 2015  - By

The Robotics in Action drone flying area at the AUVSI show.

The AUVSI show in Atlanta, held May 4-7, drew significantly more attention from TV media this year, as several of the major networks provided live coverage from the show floor. NBC’s Today morning show opened with a live shot of a drone hovering in front of an opening house door, as if patiently waiting to deliver a package from Google or Amazon — the potential good side of drones for consumers.

Then their coverage recalled the DJI drone crashing onto the White House front lawn in the early morning hours (perhaps an unfortunate loss of user control, but an odd time and place to be out flying a drone), and airline pilot reports of lighted drones appearing above nighttime final approach paths — the bad side of drones in common usage.


The Connex wireless system.

Then Brian Wynne, president and CEO of AUVSI, provided a positive insight on the latest forecasts of UAV’s contributing $82 billion to the U.S. economy. Wynne’s estimates included the generation of more than 100,000 new high-paying technical jobs within 10 years’ time. But in an effort to urge faster progress towards regulations, Wynne also suggested that for every day of delay in Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rulemaking to allow open use of drones, the U.S. loses $27 million daily in economic impact.

There was similar encouraging coverage by Fox News from the Atlanta Convention Center show floor, followed by Brian Wynne again pitching for rapid introduction of commercial drone use in the U.S. Fox chose to broadcast from the Robotics in Action drone flying area, and to feature real-time, zero latency HD video transmitted via Amimon’s Connex wireless system. A good demo over live TV, and Amimon’s chance to tell the world about its wireless transmission system that can transmit HD video over up to half-a-mile away with zero latency — good news, incidentally, for Fox, NBC, CNN and other news gatherers.

This year, it also seems that the terminology battle with the U.S. media over the common usage of the term drone or drones, rather than the more accurate UAV or UAV, has been conceded. So now we can talk about drones no matter how much it pains us to do so.

But the FAA is not standing still. Well over 200 Section 333 exemptions have now been granted to allow commercial UAS applications to undertake or investigate revenue-generating business. FAA representatives came to the show to let people know they are working hard to progress towards the safe use of drones in U.S. airspace. Through a media-only press-conference, the FAA announced the B4UFly smartphone app to inform recreational drone operators if it’s safe to fly. Features include:

  • A clear “status” indicator that immediately informs operators about their current or planned location.
    Information on the parameters that drive the status indicator.
  • A “Planner Mode” for future flights in different locations.
  • Informative, interactive maps with filtering options.
  • Contact information for nearby airports.
  • Links to other FAA UAS resources and regulatory information.

The app will access the user’s location to automatically generate this information. There is also a planning mode for what data could be available for a potential future location to which you may be preparing to go.

But the main news from FAA Administrator Michael Huerta at the press conference was about the Pathfinder program, which involves three U.S. companies undertaking research with the FAA to expand unmanned aircraft operations in the United States. Each project has a key element where boundaries are being stretched to gain experience and to develop new capabilities to overcome restrictions for UAVs.

CNN (Cable News Network) will use visual line-of-sight (LOS) drone newsgathering in urban areas. There have previously been heavy restrictions in most of the Section 333 exemptions on operating in populated areas. So, it would seem that care will be taken in how news coverage will be generated around and over people, but the news will still be working to get the live overhead video we are now seeing more often on TV.

PrecisionHawk and BNSF Railway will investigate operations in rural areas, flying outside LOS. This is big news, as most UAV operators want to extend their areas of operation much further than visual LOS. In particular, Amazon has been most critical about LOS restrictions — the retailer wants package delivery to be virtually automated. But more on that later.

Beyond visual LOS, investigations in largely unpopulated areas by PrecisionHawk and BNSF could result in safe technology and procedures that could be commonly used in populated area for other operators. This is clearly the FAA’s desire, and of course, its intent is also to deflect earlier criticism of lack of progress in this area.

Onto Amazon. The company filed a UAV delivery patent with the U.S. Patent Office, where drone deliveries would be navigated by pulling location data from a customer’s smartphone — and real-time routes and directions would be constantly updated to guide the delivery process.

Amazon’s Prime Air "Delivery Drone.”

Amazon’s Prime Air “Delivery Drone.”

Amazon smart aircraft could interact between each other, passing on traffic and weather conditions. Delivery options for the consumer include a tool to deliver packages to your home, workplace or even to vacation locations.

Various safety precautions and caveats appear to have been appropriately addressed in the patent. Use of a number of sensors, including, radars, acoustic sensors and an infrared camera, are outlined in the patent to ensure safe navigation and landing. The patent also proposes a number of different types of unmanned aircraft with different shapes and weight for its delivery system.

And then on Tuesday, May 12, just after the AUVSI convention had wound down and left Atlanta, two U.S. senators jointly proposed a new bill that could expedite the commercial introduction of drones.

The senators believe the U.S. is falling behind other countries when it comes to creating rules for commercial drones. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) introduced the Commercial UAS Modernization Act, which would set temporary rules for those who want to fly commercial unmanned aircraft systems before the FAA establishes permanent laws regarding drone use.

Sen. Corey Booker

Sen. Corey Booker

The Commercial UAS Modernization Act outlines basic rules for commercial use around registration, certification, insurance, tests and safety. Operators would be required to keep the drones under 500 feet, fly only in daylight, and operate within visual line of sight (LOS). However, the proposal also creates a deputy administrator position that would be able to make an exemption for a commercial drone operator for beyond visual LOS and for “heavier unmanned vehicles.”

Not later than 90 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Deputy Associate Administrator, in consultation with the Administrator, shall expedite and expand exemptions from the interim operating restrictions otherwise applicable to unmanned aircraft under section 337,” the act reads. 

Sen. John Hoeven

Sen. John Hoeven

When I talked with Sen. Hoeven this week, he emphasized that this bill seeks to accelerate the commercial use of drones in the U.S. and to make more use of the UAV test centers that the FAA has set up. These centers are capable of doing more, and can be the points that prospective drone operators visit to register their craft and take knowledge and proficiency qualification tests.

The bill gives tight timescales to the FAA to set up accessible locations to achieve registration and set up these operator qualification programs. In addition, the bill establishes a new deputy administrator position responsible for the safe integration of UAS in U.S. airspace, while also streamlining regulations that currently slow the industry’s ability to innovate new aircraft technologies.

In essence, the bill takes the core elements of the FAA’s past Section 333 approvals — less the requirement for a private pilot’s license — and makes them law. Operators would no longer need to ask the FAA for an exemption.

I asked Sen. Hoeven if the FAA has responded to the proposed bill, and he said he would be meeting with FAA Administrator Michael Huerta on May 14. “This follows their rules,” the senator said, so his message is let’s move forward together.

So, it would seem that momentum is at last gathering to overcome what would seem to be a lengthy period of FAA intransigence, including new innovative efforts by the agency itself to find ways to move forward more rapidly. Innovation in UAV technology, products and applications has been going on at a rapid pace, and the pent-up demand seems to be spilling over.

With more than 4,000 comments in hand for the FAA to deal with on its proposed rulemaking for small UAVs, it’s doubtful we’ll have any FAA regulations any time soon. So the Section 333 exemptions will probably continue, unless they are not totally overwhelmed by the new rules proposed by Senators Hoeven and Booker, who hope to see their bill approved sometime this year.

Tony Murfin
GNSS Aerospace

About the Author: Tony Murfin

Tony Murfin is managing consultant for GNSS Aerospace LLC, Florida. Murfin provides business development consulting services to companies involved in GNSS products and markets, and writes for GPS World as the OEM Professional contributing editor. Previously, Murfin worked for NovAtel Inc. in Calgary, Canada, as vice president of Business Development; for CMC Electronics in Montreal, Canada, as business development manager, product manager, software manger and software engineer; for CAE in Montreal as simulation software engineer; and for BAe in Warton, UK, as senior avionics engineer. Murfin has a B.Sc. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the UK, and is a UK Chartered Engineer (CEng MIET).

2 Comments on "Encouraging Signs for Commercial UAVs"

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  1. Walter Greene says:

    Rush rush rush. The FAA should be dragging their feet. Do UAVs have a technical answer to avoiding manned aircraft? Are there technical standards to prevent loss of control conditions? Is the control software written to flight safety standards?

    Some possible scenarios:

    UAV flies into path of a manned aircraft.

    UAV experiences loss of control while monitoring traffic on highway. Falls onto road and causes chain reaction accident.

    UAV becomes entangled with high tension power lines.