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Sharing the Sky

Unmanned Air Vehicle Industry Seeks Standards

by Daryl Davidson

Perhaps it is significant that unmanned air vehicles have gained widespread public recognition in 2003, exactly 100 years after Orville Wright achieved the first manned flight of a powered aircraft. What the Wright brothers did on the sands of Kitty Hawk, N.C., set the pace for a century of aviation innovation.

Since 1917, the U.S. military has had a long and continuous history of involvement with UAVs, also known as remotely operated aircraft, or drones, which are typically operated by controllers on the ground. Pilotless planes have had active roles in the Vietnam, Persian Gulf, and Balkan conflicts, as well as the more recent Afghan and Iraqi combat operations, providing reconnaissance in each. And recent technological improvements make UAVs more sophisticated and capable than ever.

Now, some in the U.S. Congress have asked President George W. Bush to explore the use of UAVs as part of the homeland security mission, saying the potential applications for this technology are “quite compelling.” Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge agrees, saying “we need to equip [our agents] with this kind of technology if our expectations legitimately are for them to combat terrorism. We are very serious in looking at UAVs for both border applications, land and sea.”

However, development and production of the UAV as civil and commercial tools have lagged far behind that of drones designed as instruments of war. UAVs have so far failed to find an expanding market.

The inability of the UAV to find a commercial niche is largely due to the lack of “rules of the road” for UAV certification and flight operations that would allow them to coexist peacefully with manned aircraft. A senior Pentagon official believes “the successful integration of UAVs into both military and civil airspace is key to enabling the full capabilities that UAVs promise to provide.”

Now, key stakeholders in the UAV community have banded together to develop standards for UAV systems — a step critical to maturation of the unmanned systems industry.

Nearly 200 officials representing UAV manufacturers and other interested parties voted this past July at an open ASTM organizational meeting to create the consensus standards and procedures leading to the UAV’s routine access to the national airspace system, or NAS, for civil and commercial uses.

The effort to develop standards for non-military UAV systems, which will support the drafting of U.S. Federal Aviation Administration regulations regarding UAV in the NAS, is now led by ASTM International through its new Committee F38 on Unmanned Air Vehicle Systems.

The Process

AUVSI and dozens of stakeholders from the UAV industry turned to ASTM because of its successes in providing a forum for the development and publication of voluntary consensus standards for materials, products, systems and services. Organized within technical committees, ASTM develops technical documents that are a basis for manufacturing, procurement, codes and regulations. What particularly attracted the industry to ASTM was its experience in bringing together other industries to successfully develop true consensus standards.

Mike Saraniero, who serves as chairman of the AUVSI/FAA Industry Support Group, says ASTM should lead the standards creation effort. “I think ASTM is the right answer. Senior FAA officials recommended we enter into a relationship with ASTM because of their past performance and capabilities with light-sport aircraft. This is what ASTM does for a living, and they have a successful track record. We’re very excited about this opportunity.”

AUVSI has been instrumental in the UAV standards effort, initiating discussions with ASTM International in February at the suggestion of Nick Sabatini, the FAA’s director of regulation and certification. ASTM previously worked with the U.S. aviation agency and the recreational aircraft industry in developing consensus standards for the design, operation, and maintenance of light-sport aircraft through Committee F37 on Light-Sport Aircraft.

In late April, a planning meeting was held in which AUVSI, ASTM and industry representatives discussed the possibility of a standards development activity on UAVs within ASTM. The attendees agreed to pursue the matter, leading to the formal “go/no-go” decision and organizational meeting in July.

Those who met in Baltimore that month approved the scope of Committee F38, agreeing to organize into three subcommittees covering air-worthiness, flight operations and operator qualifications. The standards will cover areas including safety requirements, quality assurance, production, acceptance testing and control systems.

Committee F38 members “are actively engaged in standards development,” say ASTM officials, who add that they have met with senior FAA officials twice since late July, providing them with progress reports on the efforts of Committee F38.

How long the standards development process will take is unclear, but communications technology, including e-mail and Virtual Meetings, speed up the process. Pat A. Picariello, ASTM’s director of developmental operations, says, “given the right situation,” documents can be created in less than a year. Depending on a committee’s commitment to timely development and approval, standards can take as little as six months to become full consensus standards.

Dewar Donnithorne-Tait, AUVSI’s president, says “our sector is growing fast. The options offered by existing and emerging unmanned systems technologies are outstripping the capability of applications to exploit them fully. The potential for innovation is enormous. The potential to assist human enterprise in a whole range of activities is huge. But we are faced with a number of challenges, including the lack of standards, which has held back great strides forward in technology application.”He believes “the unmanned systems sector has to become mature if we are to be taken seriously.” Consensus standards are important means to that end. //


The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International is the world’s largest non-profit organization devoted exclusively to furthering the advancement and utilization of air, land and maritime unmanned systems technologies. With members from government organizations, industry, and academia around the world, AUVSI is committed to fostering, developing, and promoting unmanned systems and related technologies.

Founded in Dayton, Ohio, in 1972 as the National Association for Remotely Piloted Vehicles, AUVSI’s scope has grown to include all unmanned systems — from remotely operated to state-of-the-art, autonomous systems. NARPV became the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems in 1978, and AUVS moved its headquarters from Dayton to the Washington, D.C., area in 1982 where it remains today. Along the way, AUVS became AUVSI to emphasize the international scope of its day-to-day activities.

AUVSI provides forums for the exchange of information and the advancement of unmanned systems technology and development. Events include the annual symposium and exhibition, as well as the international air, ground, and underwater student competitions, which introduce future generations of engineers, scientists and operators to unmanned systems. Meanwhile, AUVSI’s Ground, Sea and Air Conference is a technology-focused, three-day event held annually in February. It dedicates a day to each unmanned systems discipline.

Copyright 2003, ASTM

Daryl Davidson is the executive director of AUVSI and has been with the association since 1988. He is responsible for implementing the organization’s strategic objectives and overseeing the day-to-day operations.

From the Federal Aviation Administration:

“The use of voluntary, consensus standards in the development of the light-sport aircraft rule proved itself a valuable resource in promulgating rules on the certification requirements for recreational aircraft. The FAA looks forward to reviewing the consensus standards that will be developed by Committee F 38 on Unmanned Air Vehicle Systems.”
— Glenn H. Rizner, Aviation Safety Analyst, AFS-820, U.S. FAA