Emerging from the Wild West of wartime, with its urgent requirements, rapid prototyping and operational experiments, unmanned aircraft systems are seeking roles in a civilian world of airworthiness regulations, airspace restrictions, privacy concerns and ownership costs.
Just as the U.S. Wild West was tamed by lawmakers and regulators, so the pioneering spirit of the unmanned-systems industry is being channeled toward maturing technologies and operating procedures that will enable the creation of new civilian and commercial markets.
And while it is hard to think of the FAA as a gun-toting U.S. marshal, the role of bringing law and order to a rambunctious community is falling to the agency as it develops the airworthiness regulations, operating rules—and potentially privacy guidelines—that will govern the industry.
There are signs of progress. On July 18, the FAA issued the first type certificates for unmanned aircraft, and operating approvals for the first commercial flights in civil airspace. They are restricted-category certificates for small UAS—AeroVironment's 13-lb. Puma AE and Insitu's 44-lb. ScanEagle—and limit flights to the essentially sterile airspace above the Arctic Circle, but they are a first step.
The FAA still hopes to announce the selection by year-end of six test sites for the research and development necessary to open national airspace to unmanned aircraft by September 2015. But bedeviling public concerns over the privacy rules under which these sites—and other civil operators—fly their UAS could further postpone an already delayed decision.
While it deliberates, the FAA has moved to make it easier for public agencies, principally police departments, to operate small UAS. Industry, meanwhile, has proposed a plan to integrate UAS that would begin by treating properly equipped larger vehicles operating at higher altitudes in the same way as manned aircraft.
Approval for access to lower altitudes, and for smaller vehicles, will likely have to await the development of a sense-and-avoid capability for UAS. Several flight trails have highlighted the suitability of automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) for collision avoidance where aircraft sharing airspace are similarly equipped. But not everything that flies will carry ADS-B, and detecting and avoiding non-cooperative traffic will require the development and certification of sensor suites.