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Standards for Unmanned Air Vehicles

The Perspective of Manufacturers and Operators

by David E. Grilley

Pick up any recent aviation journal and you are likely to see pictures of unmanned air vehicles such as Predator or Global Hawk on the cover proclaiming the latest success of these flying machines. For an industry that has been stuck (since 1917) in the military target drone world (with a few, short-lived exceptions) and recreational, radio-controlled model airplanes, the current mood recreates the “glory days” of the barnstormers.

The skies are a little more crowded now than they were in 1918 when the U.S. Postal Service first contracted airmail delivery and provided the impetus for the airline industry. Today’s rules and regulations grew with the fledgling aviation industry to ensure public safety. As a result, unmanned aerial vehicles are constrained from going beyond the exploratory phase. The rules and standards that protect public safety do not account for the unique capabilities and operations of UAVs, and, conversely, UAVs have to meet difficult, sometimes prohibitive, requirements to gain approval to conduct operations.

There are a number of civil and commercial applications that UAVs could potentially perform — law enforcement, wildfire reconnaissance, disaster relief, environmental monitoring and research, tax and zoning databases, precision agriculture, power and gas line patrol, wireless communication relay, natural resource management, and media support, to name a few. Unfortunately, most commercial UAV vendors are using prototypes that are ill-suited to the tasks at hand. Costs for these prototypes are too expensive for customers, and the lack of reliability makes insurance difficult. Commercial customers want dependable service, not science fair projects, and unfortunately, many of today’s UAVs are just that.

In order for UAVs to explore and develop their commercial niche, they need to gain routine, integrated access to the national airspace system, or NAS. Routine access means UAVs will file flight plans and operate like manned aircraft. This means they will integrate with manned aircraft safely. To do this, they will need to comply with the current regulatory structure, or with possible new regulations that account for the capabilities of these new systems. These regulations will require specific capabilities, defined by standards, to meet requirements for safety and reliability.

These standards, in turn, will provide guidelines that allow manufacturers of UAVs to build production systems that are eminently marketable. Operations standards will enable a service provider to meet the needs of customers with UAVs built to meet them. The analogy here is the airline industry: Boeing builds its airliners to an airworthiness standard, but Delta provides the service to the customers (passengers and cargo) and maintains the planes for continued airworthiness. The incorporation of standards in a system that parallels the one already in place will provide the safety and security necessary to gain routine integrated access to the NAS.

The U.S. National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act of 1995 directs government agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration “to use voluntary consensus standards in lieu of government-unique standards except where inconsistent with law or otherwise impractical.” This gives UAV manufacturers a unique opportunity to help create standards for themselves. By regulating themselves through consensus standards, UAV manufacturers will ensure that they produce vehicles that meet the safety and reliability requirements of the public. This will encourage and support the necessary regulations that will allow UAV operations. Use of the standards assures manufacturers that their products are saleable. Without standards, they would have to spend enormous resources to prove their UAVs meet FAA requirements. The benefit of standards is simple: cost savings during development.

Standards will also provide customers with assurance that the UAV they purchase is airworthy and actually meets their expectations. Once customers are convinced that they are getting a product that is both suitable and cost effective, the markets will develop for further use of UAVs.

Like electrical codes, we can expect to develop standards to meet numerous needs. For starters, UAVs need capability standards that support regulations that allow them to operate in the NAS. These will probably include both flight operations and mechanical system capabilities. For example, the aviation community and the FAA will expect UAVs to comply with Code of Federal Regulations 14 CFR Part 91.113, Right of Way Rules, often quoted as the “see and avoid” concept. New ASTM Committee F38 on Unmanned Air Vehicle Systems will have to produce standards to accomplish this task that are acceptable to the aviation community and to the FAA.

We will also need standards for product information, control systems, data-links, command and control, security, operating environment definitions, payload interfaces, human machine interfaces, production, airworthiness, reliability, and continued airworthiness. Some of these areas have military or NATO standards that can be adapted to commercial use, others do not. The service providers will need training and operations standards. Pilots will need standards for ratings and limitations, qualification and evaluation standards, and medical standards. Some of these may result in new or modified regulations or advisory circulars.

Fortunately, the UAV industry can approach this task with optimism. The recent success of ASTM Committee F37 on Light Sport Aircraft, which was formed just over one year ago, is achieving many of the same goals needed by the UAV community. This is a precedent and resource we cannot ignore if UAVs are ever to achieve their full potential.

It will not be easy for the manufacturers. None of the current crop of UAVs can adequately comply with the airspace requirements, especially the “see and avoid” requirement. Without further definition through standards, none of them will. Operation under Instrument Flight Rules will place specific requirements on the control systems and pilots. All of this is going to require the manufacturers to redesign their systems significantly . In addition, there will be a need to build systems with better reliability, and to test them to define their limits.

The result, however, will be UAV systems that can safely operate in the NAS and thus meet customer demands. Standards are the key to opening the marketplace to UAVs and eventually creating new, unique opportunities for UAVs. The increased level of safety and reliability will also make insurance companies more likely to insure UAVs. Financing for the commercial operations will become easier as well.

If the UAV industry is going to succeed in the current aviation environment, we will have to pursue consensus standards. With sound standards, we can achieve the same success as our counterparts in manned aviation. //

Copyright 2003, ASTM

David E. “Grizz” Grilley is an operations analyst for unmanned aviation at SRA, Adroit Center in Alexandria, Va., where he conducts studies and flight operations involving UAVs. Prior to joining Adroit, he served in the US Air Force in the UAV Battlelab, and as an F-16 pilot, T-38 Instructor, and RF-4 Weapons System Officer. He has over 2,500 hours of flight time and is the chairman of Subcommittee F38.02 on Flight Operations.