Unmanned Traffic Jam
To the Federal Aviation Administration, civilian UAVs are the new barbarians at the gate.
- By Douglas Gantenbein
- Air & Space magazine, July 2009
Department of Defense
(Page 4 of 5)
Autonomous flight is what really gets UAV supporters enthusiastic. Such aircraft could hunt for forest fires, for instance—or, more usefully (since finding a forest fire is rarely difficult), fly the night missions fire managers rely on to map the size and intensity of a blaze through infrared sensors. For his research on plant pathology, David Schmale could use multiple autonomous UAVs to find and track plumes of airborne pathogens, measuring the plumes’ size, direction of drift, speed, and more. In the event of a terrorist attack, such UAVs could track airborne chemicals or biological agents.
And in Utah, where state laws require highway patrol officers to photograph injury accidents, troopers are interested in carrying UAV helicopters in the trunks of their patrol cars. At an accident scene, a trooper could punch in some GPS coordinates and the little helo would take off, buzz over the specified grid, take pictures, and land.
For the most part, the machines are here today. The big challenge, says Jonathan How, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is designing an airspace they can fly in. “All GPS tells an aircraft is where it is,” says How, who designs autonomy software for UAVs. “Flying safely also requires [knowing] what else is out there.” Achieving that will require communication between aircraft, or visual sensors on the aircraft, or data sent from ground stations.
“I understand what they want to do—I heard a DOJ [Department of Justice] guy talking about the Utah proposal,” says Kenneth “Doug” Davis, a longtime FAA official who now is running the agency’s program on managing UAVs in the national airspace. “But there are 19,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States. Of those, fewer than 300 have aviation units. So less than two percent of these guys have a clue about what constitutes ‘airworthiness.’ ” In terms of teaching potential UAV operators the rules of aviation, he says, “we have a big education gap to fill.”
Davis points out that today’s UAVs—which can resemble everything from an insect to a small piloted aircraft in size—simply don’t fly the way other types of aircraft do. “An airliner operating at 30,000 feet can move 500 knots across the ground,” he says. A UAV “might have the thrust to reach 30,000, but then it’s moving at only 100 knots. That creates a big challenge for integrating slower aircraft into the airspace.”
The FAA issued 165 Certificates of Airworthiness for UAVs in 2008, up from 85 in 2007. The agency, which hopes to pick up the pace, is working on new regulations and plans to start gathering public comment late this year and into 2010.
Still, creating guidelines for operating UAVs is going slowly, and that frustrates plenty of people. “The FAA wants us to show these things are safe, but they make it difficult to fly them to collect the information needed to prove they are safe,” says Massood Towhidnejad, a professor of computer and software engineering at Florida’s Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who studies potential UAV applications. “Look, I agree with some of the [FAA] restrictions. But I don’t agree with others. We all agree with the FAA’s position that safety of the public should be the highest priority in any decision they make, and it’s unrealistic to assume [the FAA] should allow UAV systems to fly over any area that could result in human loss or injuries, or property damage. However, if the request is for a flight test over an area where’s there’s almost no chance of danger to humans or property—in the middle of the ocean, say, or over a desert—there’s still a good chance the FAA won’t approve the request. It’s obvious that the expected damage generated from the crash of a Predator is much higher than a small six-foot-wingspan UAV. And yet the FAA allows hobbyists to fly remote-controlled model aircraft very close to—or even in—cities, but they don’t allow a UAV of the same size to fly the same areas. If we could get more UAVs flying, they could play a major role in society.”
Another Embry-Riddle professor, Richard Stansbury, who specializes in robotics, sees fleets of larger UAVs eventually providing delivery services for UPS, FedEx, and other air freight companies. “It just makes sense to have [UAVs] do that,” he says.
The day after he and Elson Shields flew their UAVs through a cloud of potato blight, David Schmale returned to the field to test his autonomous UAVs. Three of them took off and began to pirouette through the sky, flying precisely and gracefully, learning to work together to track a pest that could do tremendous damage. It’s anyone’s guess how much else they could track.