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 June 2007
James Jewell is president of UAV MarketSpace, Inc., Oyster Bay, N.Y., and serves as vice chairman of ASTM International Committee F38 on Unmanned Air Vehicle Systems.

Aviation’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Future

If you will allow your imagination to wander for a few moments, I would like to describe a vision of the future of aviation operations, a future that is composed of automated, unmanned aircraft systems and machine intelligence. This is a future that, if incrementally implemented, is within our reach in 15 to 20 years.

In this vision, unmanned aircraft constitute virtually all aerospace cargo operations. Cargo is transported internationally and nationally with a minimum of human involvement, except for operations monitoring. Extending this vision, we see the local distribution of packages mediated by fully integrated UAS that utilize radio frequency identification tracking and include delivery to your doorstep.

Unmanned aircraft systems could also assume a predominant role in forest fire mapping using infrared scanners within five years. Within 15 years, we might see UAS flying through firestorms, deploying fireproof personnel baskets, and recovering trapped personnel. Also imagine unmanned aircraft used in search and rescue and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Other potential missions include remote surveying, pipeline or electrical transmission line maintenance surveying; mineral, oil and gas exploration; and a plethora of “earthwatch” missions for environmental protection, pollution monitoring and global warming studies and research operations.

Agricultural applications for UAS include optimum harvest, grape and coffee vigor mapping, frost mitigation and disease management. In Japan, the Yamaha RMax rotary wing UAS has been a stable of agriculture for the last five years. The interior of the United States and many parts of Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and North and South America lend themselves very well to the deployment of robotic aircraft for livestock tracking and herd management, wildlife conservation, resource stewardship and other conservancy applications.

As you can see, it is possible to envision thousands of what are commonly called “dull, dirty and dangerous” flight operations undertaken by unmanned aircraft.

Reality Check

Before this can become a reality, the unmanned aircraft systems industry must overcome some final technological problems. The good news is that we are at a point at which many of these problems are being addressed by approaches that are now sufficiently mature and that, when applied, tweaked and validated, will prove capable of resolving the final hurdles.

Toward this goal, consensus standards allow international and national regulators a foundation upon which regulation and policy may be built, ultimately leading to the safe integration of UAS into the international system of national air spaces. The development of UAS-specific standards that address major regulatory safety concerns will govern the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s granting of appropriate flight authorities for the vast number of potential UAS mission profiles above.
To date, ASTM International Committee F38 on Unmanned Aircraft Systems has produced the only comprehensive list and review of existing aviation standards, many of which are directly applicable to UAS. This review has helped the committee identify gaps and new standard development areas as well as prospective development opportunities.

Collision Avoidance and C3

The two most significant hurdles to achieving regulatory approval for the common use of UAS are collision avoidance and command, control and communication issues.

Collision Avoidance — A UAS must be capable on its own of avoiding a mid-air collision with any other user of a national airspace system. The requirements, sensitivity, specificity and other parameters of sense-and-avoid may change from one class of airspace to another.

Initial operations will most likely include remote-controlled UAS operating in Class G, or uncontrolled airspace, under 1,200 ft (365 m), where collision avoidance will be handled by an observer on the ground advising the “pilot” who is controlling flight through a remote-control interface. As technologies mature and are certified by the FAA and international regulators, sense-and-avoid will expand to include full end-to-end automated collision avoidance systems capable of detecting, tracking and delivering resolution maneuvers to autopilots. We are a few years away from that comprehensive collision avoidance reality, but not as many as one might expect.

ASTM Committee F38 is actively involved in this area and has published F 2411, Specification for Design and Performance of an Airborne Sense-and-Avoid System, a continually evolving framework of collision avoidance that will ultimately merge with other standards and provide a complete automated mid-air collision avoidance capability.

Command, Control and Communication — Remotely piloted or autopiloted UAS must maintain secure links with their control centers. In the unlikely event that control is momentarily lost, the aircraft must be capable of automatically reverting to a fixed emergency procedure such as flying to a predefined GPS-mediated airspace or flying in a race-track pattern at a suitable altitude until positive control is established.

The variables in standardizing command, control and communication, or C3, are manifold, based as they are on the mass and velocity of the UAS and traffic density in the area of operations. Aircraft control links must be able to detect and avoid various forms of deliberate interference with positive command of the UAS airframes. These are not simple technological hurdles to overcome. Until the C3 issues are resolved and certified by international regulators to meet specific performance standards, these regulators will closely control the authorization of airspace for UAS operations.

Future standards for C3 will set baseline performance parameters for how UAS respond autonomously in the event of loss of communication or a security breach.

Cooperative Standards Development

When it conducted the aforementioned review of existing and needed standards, F38 was mindful of the contribution of complementary standards efforts, including EuroCAE WG73 (EuroControl), the Society of Automotive Engineers G10, the American Institute of Aerospace and Aeronautics, and RTCA Special Committee (SC) 203. RTCA is a federal advisory committee which produces consensus-based recommendations for use by the FAA as the basis for policy, program, and regulatory decisions. SC 203 is scoped to provide high-level guidance documents, including those for minimum aviation and operational performance standards; command, control, and communications; and sense-and-avoid issues.

Committee F38’s integration into this activity and others ensures that the group develops timely technical standards that support the guidance framework produced by RTCA. The committee is committed to the concept that the UAS industry is best served through cooperative standards development, collaborating whenever possible.

Committee F38’s integration into this activity and others ensures that the group develops timely technical standards that support the guidance framework produced by RTCA. The committee is committed to the concept that the UAS industry is best served through cooperative standards development, collaborating whenever possible.

Suites of Standards

Committee F38 is developing the concept of complementary suites of standards, grouped to accomplish specific objectives that, individually a single standard could not achieve. As an example, in the very near future, F38 will have a group of four standards: a mini-UAS airworthiness standard, a remote control/visual range operations standard, a remote control/visual range pilot training standard, and a mini-UAS operation handbook. When combined with the RTCA SC 203 small-UAS best practices document and supplemental guidance provided by regulatory authorities, the F38 suite can be used to create documentation in support of applications for program letters for special (experimental) airworthiness certification, or for certificates of authorization for flight authority, supporting both public and civil UAS flight operations.

ASTM Committee F38 welcomes inquiries and participation from all industry representatives in both the public and private sectors to assist F38 in achieving its goal — the timely development of an immense new economic engine that the UAS industry is poised to produce. While UAS have been around conceptually since the time of Nikola Tesla, we are coming upon a nexus of advanced technology development that the industry is applying to resolve the most intractable impediments to the safe introduction of UAS in the international airspace system. In the view of many, we stand at the dawn of a new era in aviation that may become as significant as the first heavier-than-air manned flight achieved just over 100 years ago by the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, N.C. //