The White House has joined in to support continued growth of the emerging unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry. Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) technologies are powering a revolution in unmanned flight.
Already used by government, by research organizations, and by industry for more efficient and safe applications, drones are now becoming a developing part of the United States economy. A new initiative by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) brought together 150 UAS community leaders for a recent workshop at the White House. The event was held to find out more about the UAS industry, where it’s headed, and to seek ideas for how government might contribute.
Given that the current administration has only limited time remaining, the group proposed some significant issues that could be launched, or at least where there should be focus. The only short-term goal that could be achieved by the end of the year is the release by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for UAV operations over people.
One principle objective should be for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to develop rules in concert with industry for licensing allocated frequency spectrum. While the FAA has yet to develop rules for higher altitude, larger-UAV operations, the UAS industry requires spectrum for command and control of aircraft at high altitudes and for beyond visual line of sight operations. The FAA and FCC regulations should be developed in parallel.
The group felt another problem that should be tackled is UAS Traffic Management (UTM). While NASA has been investigating prototype UTM options and various industry leaders have been advocating a number of different approaches, the group seemed to indicate that unless government took some form of leadership role, a number of different, incompatible solutions might be developed.
Finally, there was discussion about how a number of states are implementing local UAS regulations, while the FAA believes it has responsibility for all U.S. airspace. However, large numbers of small UAS (sUAS) are expected to operate at lower altitudes, so local authorities believe they should assert more control, even though they were comfortable in the past ceding control of manned aviation to the FAA. However, nationwide, uniform safety regulations appear to be just as critical for UAS as for manned aircraft, which seems to imply that the FAA should lead the effort.
So, some good issues were identified that need serious work to enable UAS operations, but it’s always a problem when someone else gets stuck with the responsibility to find solutions — which will be the case when the administration changes. Hopefully the new guys will also believe how beneficial UAS will be for the economy and will chase down and help overcome these barriers.
Meanwhile, on the package delivery front, Google’s Project Wing has been approved by FAA to begin testing, albeit within the confines of Northern Plains UAS test site in North Dakota. The heavier Google delivery drones will be tested from the ground up to 29,000 feet with external loads, and efforts will be made to fly them beyond line of sight without chase aircraft. Google will also prototype a low-altitude airspace management system for the tests that uses inexpensive comms and data technologies.
While authorization in the U.S. was still pending, Google went looking for somewhere to test its prototype drone delivery system, and in August 2014 undertook testing in Queensland, Australia. At that time Google was using a vertical take-off UAV system — they delivered portable radios and water bottles to farmers.
Word is that Google is now looking at fixed-wing UAVs and cargo slung from them — maybe for transporting heavier packages.
And further North in Ontario, Canada, Drone Delivery Canada (DDC) is moving forward with the development and implementation of a commercial drone delivery platform for retailers, service organizations and government agencies. In remote parts of Canada, access to some communities can be difficult to impossible for conventional means. DDC expects to add additional sites later this year for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) testing, working with the Canadian government towards obtaining its operator status. DDC also just announced an agreement with a Canadian retailer to test and integrate its drone system with the retailer’s existing depot-to-depot delivery logistics.
And not to be left out of this picture, 7-Eleven has been working with drone manufacturer Flirtey to test autonomous delivery of convenience store items. Dispatched from a Nevada 7 Eleven store, two deliveries were completed to a local customer’s house using precision GPS, where the Flirtey drone hovered and gently lowered each package of goodies.
So, while the White House now seems to be actively engaged in supporting the introduction of UAS into commercial operations in the U.S., we still have many significant obstacles to overcome — not least are access to control frequencies, the development and introduction of drone traffic-control systems, and the coordination of federal and state rule-making. But this apparently has not deterred several organizations, including Google, DDC, Flirtey/7-Eleven, Amazon, Walmart and others, to trial drone package delivery. U.S. states have also recognized the promise of everything connected with UAVs and their operations, and are collaborating with the FAA to establish large swaths of the airspace for UAV testing.
What with the White House and states already on the UAV bandwagon, surely it won’t be long before we crack the nut and get significant commercial operations approved and underway.