August 05, 2013
Credit: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems
Airspace access is the holy grail for an unmanned-aircraft industry seeing wartime demand winding down and looking to civilian uses for continued growth. Progress has been slow, but there are signs a breakthrough is near.
Airworthiness certification standards for unmanned aircraft systems are a prerequisite for commercial operations in the National Airspace System (NAS). While industry-led working groups develop performance standards for command-and-control data links and sense-and-avoid systems for UAS, the FAA has taken the first step by issuing type certificates for two unmanned aircraft.
Restricted-category certificates for AeroVironment's 13-lb. Puma AE and Insitu's 44-lb. ScanEagle permit aerial surveillance in Arctic airspace, where the likelihood of encountering uncooperative aircraft is zero. Commercial flights will begin soon: the hand-launched Puma for oil-spill monitoring and wildlife observation over the Beaufort Sea; and the ScanEagle for ship-launched flights to survey ice floes and migrating whales in Arctic oil exploration areas.
“Type certification allows us to go beyond the norm, which is a UAS operating under a certificate of authorization as a public aircraft, and is the basis for commercial operations,” says Paul McDuffee, vice president of government relations and strategy for Insitu. “To the FAA's credit, they have been willing to work with industry to come up with solutions for adopting and adapting regulations intended for manned aircraft and applying them to unmanned,” he says.
The Puma and ScanEagle were pathfinder programs for restricted-category certification under the FAA's existing Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) Part 21.25 rules. Insitu submitted its application in January, and the process went “astoundingly fast,” McDuffee says. Key was a “carve out” in FAR Part 21.25 for certification of aircraft already accepted for use by the Defense Department, which applies to both systems.
An aviation rulemaking committee chartered by the FAA in 2011 to recommend operating procedures and regulatory standards for UAS access to national airspace has submitted its plan, meanwhile. “It's a good blueprint for how to do this, says Scott Dann, director of strategic development at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, noting its similarity to the Access 5 plan developed by NASA and industry in the early 2000s.
The plan proposes allowing appropriately equipped aircraft to “file and fly” above flight level (FL) 180 in Class A airspace, where separation is provided by air traffic control. “This is how it has to go—I don't see any other way,” says Dann. In the near-term absence of a sense-and-avoid system, “those aircraft equipped to fly above FL 180 will probably have first access to the NAS.”