From The Editor | July 31, 2013

FAA Certifies First Drones For Commercial Use In U.S. Airspace

By Jim Pomager,
Follow me on Twitter @jpomager

Insitu ScanEagle

Last Friday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that it had issued restricted category type certificates to the Insitu ScanEagle X200 and the AeroVironment Puma AE drones, making them the first unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) authorized for commercial operations in the United States. The approvals are a major step toward expanded use of UAS in U.S. airspace and should further accelerate growth in an already dynamic sector and generate new opportunities in radio frequency/microwave (RF/MW) and electro-optic/infrared (EO/IR) design.

Opening The Door For New UAS Applications
Prior to these certifications, there were pretty much only two authorized ways to fly an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) — basically the aircraft portion of a UAS — in U.S. airspace:

  1. Be part of a federal, state, or local government agency (by now, we’re all painfully aware of the controversy surrounding recent FBI use of drones for domestic surveillance), or
  2. Obtain an experimental airworthiness certificate.

Unfortunately, companies seeking to use UAVs in the private sector were pretty much out of luck, since Option #1 obviously doesn’t apply to them, and Option #2 expressly forbids use in commercial operations. (For those of you who are interested, here’s a recent list of organizations that did receive licenses from the FAA to operate drones in the U.S.)

The new FAA restricted category certificates for the ScanEagle and Puma AE, however, should make it much easier for companies to take advantage of these UAVs’ unique capabilities over U.S. soil (or waters). In fact, both platforms are scheduled for commercial deployment off the coast of Alaska this year. According to the FAA announcement, a major energy company will start using the ScanEagle in August to survey ocean ice floes and migrating whales in oil exploration sites. And AeroVironment announced that its Puma AE will be used to support emergency response crews in monitoring oil spills and observing wildlife over the Beaufort Sea.

In addition to surveillance and conservation, other FAA-approved commercial uses for drones include agricultural spraying/dusting/seeding, patrolling (e.g. pipelines), and aerial advertising. Waiting in the wings are a host of other potential commercial applications for the FAA to consider, things like cargo transport, telecommunications, journalism/moviemaking, and others.

Strong UAV Market Gets Even Stronger
Over the past several years, UAVs have become the hottest growth area in the aerospace industry, primarily due to their now-widespread use in defense applications. According to a recent Teal Group report, worldwide UAV spending currently amounts to over $5 billion annually, and that number is expect to exceed $11.6 billion in 2022. During that time frame, the U.S. will be responsible for over 50% of worldwide UAV procurement and 65% of research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) activities — in spite of near-term U.S. budget cuts — the study estimates.

A sizeable portion of that growth will likely be attributable to drones (eventually) operating in U.S. airspace. Under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress tasked the FAA with establishing a program to integrate UAS into the national airspace system by 2015. While progress toward that goal has been somewhat sluggish to date, the issuance of restricted category certificates to Puma AE and Scan Eagle should jumpstart things. In its most recent aerospace forecast, the FAA projected that some 7,500 commercial small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) will be operating in the U.S. within 5 years of the necessary regulatory framework being put in place.

When that UAS integration occurs, the economic impact will be enormous, claims the industry trade group Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). In its 2013 report The Economic Impact of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the United States, AUVSI predicts that integrating drones into the national airspace will result in:

  •  $82.1 billion in total economic impact between 2015 and 2025, with $13.6 billion generated in the first three years
  • 103,766 total jobs created by 2025, with 70,000 jobs created during the first three years after integration
  • $482 million in total tax revenue generated for states between 2015 and 2025

The study also projects that precision agriculture (remote sensing and precision application) will be the biggest commercial application area for UAVs during the initial integration period, with a “large number” of other markets joining the fray in subsequent years.

What It All Means For RF/MW And EO/IR Design
Even before the FAA’s recent announcement, the UAS sector represented a huge area of opportunity for RF/microwave and EO/IR design. Unmanned aircraft systems are loaded with imaging/sensing, communications, positioning, avionics, and other advanced electronic equipment. Consider just the payloads of the two FAA-approved platforms:

  • The 44-lb., gas-powered ScanEagle is available with EO, long-wave infrared (LWIR), and mid-wave infrared imagers and can carry up to 7 lbs. of custom payloads, such as enhanced position/location reporting systems, satellite communications, and digital data links.
  • The man-portable Puma AE is smaller, much lighter (13 lb.), and electric powered, but it still carries both EO and IR cameras on a digitally stabilized gimbal, and its modular design allows for alternative payload development.

And these two drones are just the tip of the iceberg. As additional platforms gain FAA approval for commercial use, new UAS are developed, and the scope of applications in the U.S. expands, expect to see further development and use of hyperspectral imaging, ground- and foliage-penetrating radar, and other emerging payload technologies.

Another area where RF/MW and EO/IR suppliers could find some action is in the development of collision warning and avoidance systems. An interesting article on GCN updates the progress of several sense-and-avoid systems currently under development, expecting the FAA to one day relax its requirement that UAV pilots maintain line-of-sight contact with their aircraft. The trick is engineering these systems to be small and light enough to be carried by sUAVs. Separate efforts are exploring EO/IR, ADS-B transponders, and a unique combination of far infrared, radar, and LIDAR.

The FAA’s certification of the ScanEagle and Puma AE brings the widespread use drones in U.S. airspace a step closer to reality. (Some might argue it’s a small step, but hey — it’s still progress.) If projections about the domestic market for UAS are even close to accurate, that translates to a world of untapped potential for companies developing RF/microwave and EO/IR components and systems.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joseph M. Buliavac/Released