UAS: Threat or Opportunity

by Woolpert

There has been a lot of buzz lately surrounding the operation of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in our national airspace. Two things are driving this buzz. First, as the war in the Middle East draws to an end there are hundreds of military UAS assets looking for a new purpose in life. Second and also simultaneously, the President signed Public Law 112-95, better known as the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. This law mandates that the FAA solve the dilemma of how UAS will operate in our civil airspace by establishing policies, standards and procedures for a wide spectrum of users including the private sector.

These new policies allowing private sector participation in the operation of UAS for commercial use can’t happen soon enough. The military has been operating hundreds of UAS in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 10 years. Now, as they return home, they are looking for a new purpose. Unfortunately, it seems that much of the military’s plans are to compete with the private sector by performing aerial data collection for everything from emergency response to crop monitoring. In fact, three years ago, Woolpert had an emergency response project withdrawn from us from a civil Federal agency just as we were getting ready to deploy our aircraft. It was canceled because the U.S. Air Force was going to fly the project using a Predator. My fear is that this trend will only worsen.

I attended the Ohio UAS Conference in Dayton earlier this spring and was troubled to hear throughout each presentation that these military UAS were now going to be busy completing projects that have been competently and efficiently completed by the private sector for more than 50 years. While these UAS have saved hundreds of soldiers’ lives by tracking and finding those who would harm our nation, mapping a flooded river or a tornado-ravaged town in the heart of our nation is not a good use of their capabilities or our hard-earned tax dollars. At the UAS conference, a branch of the military stated it took 180 staff to operate one UAS platform and tens of thousands of tax dollars per hour to operate. A traditional aerial mapping firm could do this same operation for $2,500 per hour and collect much more accurate and robust data. Why? The private aerial mapping market has refined and developed very robust sensors over the last 40 years to collect data at 0.25-foot resolution, accurate to within 6 inches from several thousand feet for various applications from highway design to environmental monitoring to 3D modeling; however, these sensors are large and weigh 300 pounds, so they are not easily installed in a UAS. In contrast, while much smaller and lightweight, most of the sensors on UAS produce more coarse and less accurate data, mostly full-motion video and radar imagery. This type of data is not something your typical civilian Federal agency or local government is equipped to do anything with.

So therein lies the opportunity with Public Law 112-95. The military has done a great job developing UAS technology. The ability for the private sector to own and operate UAS in our national airspace in the future creates an opportunity for the further refinement of these platforms. This refinement can happen by integrating various types of sensors used by the private sector on turbo prop aircraft today into UAS platforms for the future. The prospect of developing Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) and high-resolution metric digital imaging sensors onto a UAS platform will create a whole new market and application for the private sector. Conversely, the military could benefit from having more accurate and robust sensors to aid in targeting and surveillance.

The integration of UAS into the national airspace is not a reality yet. All parties involved have much work to do: perfecting sense and avoid technologies, creating policies and procedures for different sizes and types of UAS, miniaturizing sensors and most importantly getting the public educated and comfortable with UAS flying overhead, no matter who is flying them (military or private companies). This is an exciting time to be involved in aviation in America. With the prospect of the private sector now being a part of this new chapter in our aviation heritage, the sky’s the limit!