FAA Finally Recognizes the Need for Drones in Commercial Airspace

New technology can begin with a low perceived benefit, improving with time to accommodate conceptually new and useful applications that were simply not possible with prior art. For example, the first camera phone was introduced in 2000, but low resolution (0.1MP) made it nearly useless for anything but thumbnail-sized selfies. As technology improved, phone cameras became portable barcode readers, instant white board documentation, face recognition devices, and lately have become tools for impromptu streaming videos with a broadcast potentially reaching millions and inciting societal change.

Figure 1: Drone in flight. Drones are expected to be an $82 billion industry in the U.S. by 2026. Source: CC0 Public domain, pixabay.com

Figure 1: Drone in flight. Drones are expected to be an $82 billion industry in the U.S. by 2026. Source: CC0 Public domain, pixabay.com

Table 1:Ultimately, using drones saves money, including tax dollars.

Table 1:Ultimately, using drones saves money, including tax dollars.

Drones are such a technology, starting out widely perceived as expensive toys. However, drones, also known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or simply Unmanned Aircraft (UA), are in the early stages of becoming an explosive catalyst to changing the way we live. In the U.S., UAS are expected to become an $82-billion-dollar industry within the coming decade. Video-equipped UA offers significant cost reductions when pilot-and-helicopter are replaced by drone-and-operator for institutions like Hollywood, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) alike. At $25/hour, a drone and its operator are 100 times cheaper than a manned helicopter, factoring in fuel and labor. Drones are being used in new ways, and doing what was previously left undone because it was unaffordable (Table 1)_. No longer toys, UA have extended battery life, increased independent capability with sophisticated on-board processors, increased payloads while reducing the size of electronics, and can add multiple sensors, making them a flying tool for far more than photography or delivering small packages. Drones, as flying computers, can combine multiple sensors (including real-time streaming video capture), powerful processors, connectivity, and stronger, lighter, and longer-lived battery technology.

Figure 2: At the Intel Developer’s Forum 2016, Intel RealSense™ technology was showcased in the award-winning Yuneec Typhoon H drone. The Typhoon H is able to avoid obstacles autonomously while capturing UHD video for up to 25 minutes. Source: Yuneec.com

Figure 2: At the Intel Developer’s Forum 2016, Intel RealSense™ technology was showcased in the award-winning Yuneec Typhoon H drone. The Typhoon H is able to avoid obstacles autonomously while capturing UHD video for up to 25 minutes. Source: Yuneec.com

Since 2009, the DOI has used UAs to assist with a broad range of responsibilities, including protection of endangered species, survey of wildlife and vegetation, archaeological investigation, and for assistance in emergency response and wild fire management. The DOI manages 20% of all the land in the U.S. Operating at a significant reduction in cost, UA achieve a portion of search, survey, and inspection activities for the DOI in place of manned helicopters. By late 2017, the DOI will begin developing UAS to transfer payloads that have been accomplished with manned aircraft. As a supplement to the existing manned fleet, heavy-payload capable UAS will significantly reduce cost and risk to DOI personnel, such as in wild fire suppression, where chemical retardants are dropped on fires.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the U.S. may have had a slow start in adapting the UA industry for commercial use, but this is no longer the case. Since shortly after the Wright brothers gained flight, the FAA has taken a total of 320,000 registrants for manned aircraft. It’s a wake-up call for the FAA to gather over one-half million registrants in the first 8 months for UA. Taking a pragmatic approach, the FAA has reached out to technology companies such as Intel®, drone operator associations, and other agencies (including NASA) to facilitate the safe yet rapid expansion of drones into commercial airspace.

The FAA’s first regulation for small UA (defined as weighing less than 55 pounds) went into effect on Aug 29, 2016. This foundational regulation, called “The Small UAS Rule,” states that small UAs may fly only during the day, in areas with scarce or no people, no faster than 100 MPH, and no higher than 400 feet. All commercial operators of small UAS require certification. Drones offer vast potential, and yet it is the FAA’s responsibility to maintain safety for all aircraft, as well as people and property impacted by aircraft, in a shared commercial airspace. The FAA recognizes overlap between hobbyists and certified remote pilots that fall under The Small UAS Rule, but the responsibility in determining the difference between flying for fun or for profit seems to be identified in large part by the user, at least until they run into trouble. All drones that take flight weighing over 55 pounds are the responsibility of registrants and must be marked with the registrant’s number. In a stroke of realistic insight, the FAA has created a smartphone app that helps all drone operators determine if an area is safe to fly in, called “B4UFLY.”

The FAA is coordinating with other entities to create regulations and has appointed Intel CEO Bryan Krzanich as Chair of the Drone Advisory Committee (DAC). The DAC will assist the FAA in prioritizing activities that integrate UA into future policy and regulations. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) held a workshop recently on Drones and the Future of Aviation, where Krzanich acknowledged the partnership, stating, “Leadership, policy and regulation are creating a partnership between regulations and technologies to make a safe industry.”

Approaching drones with a different mindset, Intel has asked that the FAA explain problems that need to be solved, not what cannot be done with current technology. In short, Intel has stated it simply: “Tell us what we need to invent.”

Presenting at the workshop, Krzanich discussed areas of focus as imperative in technology, to support the growing industry:

  1. Collision avoidance needs to be integrated, as it becomes critical as more enter this commercial segment with numerous drones. Several technologies are under development to address collision avoidance. It is a necessity that drones successfully avoid commercial aircraft.
  2. Communication and Connectivity: Wireless communication is important to maintain control, so 5G will be important as we progress, since there are areas where 4G is simply not available or reliable enough to fully address current concerns. Safely flying commercial drones beyond line of sight (BLOS) will require faultless connectivity, and BLOS is of great commercial interest.
  3. Multiple drones per pilot technology will need to be supported. One pilot to monitor and manage multiple drones is useful in a lost-person scenario; more eyes in the sky can help locate the missing person faster by covering more ground. Some use-cases benefit greatly from numerous “mesh networked” drones flying in concert, like a computer-controlled version of the Blue Angels, controlled as one by a single joystick.
  4. Krzanich brought up an example of inspecting infrastructure, where you can have “…a swarm of drones inspecting a bridge for cracks and deficiencies. That’s the kind of application, you know,“ he said. “We talk about aging infrastructure…in the U.S., this is a way to quickly go out and understand the status of that infrastructure in a very precise way. That’s why we believe having multiple drone technology is absolutely critical.”
  5. Smarter and more intelligent drones are key to drone autonomy; enabling integration of all of the above with more computing capability and software. Smarter drones, with more powerful processors and technology for faster communications with other drones and the cloud, faster navigation and self-correction, will enable necessary safeguards and eventually enable safe operation of drones beyond the line of sight.

Replacing Fireworks with Drones?

New applications for drones include replacing elaborate fireworks shows with hundreds of drones equipped with multi-color Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs). Replacing fireworks with multiple drones may not sound as exciting, but hundreds of drones flying in programmed patterns provide a light show worthy of Walt Disney World, save tremendous amounts of money, and are much safer and easier to precisely control.

Figure 3: Intel showcased the world’s first public drone performance on June 8 as part of Vivid Sydney, called Drone 100. Source: Intel.

Figure 3: Intel showcased the world’s first public drone performance on June 8 as part of Vivid Sydney, called Drone 100. Source: Intel.

Unmanned Reconnaissance and Rescue

Helicopters are limited due to pilot safety considerations and high operational costs in comparison to drones. Inspecting a sheer cliff face at close range is not possible for helicopter pilots in certain conditions, but a drone is low risk and much faster to deploy for the task. Extracting fire fighters in an untenable emergency situation is also an option with UAS. Risk is less of a concern with UA, which can be “called” like a homing beacon, potentially controlled by the firemen themselves with computer-controlled assistance. The DOI admits it is able to do 3 times more with drones than with manned aircraft, comparing only cost. Intangible benefits include the flexibility, since staff can quickly and easily outfit a drone with various sensors as needed.

Real Time Weather Forecasting

NOAA is working on a means to fly drones inside weather formations for real-time weather data in forecasting models. NOAA is responsible for collecting enormous amounts of data on the environment. NOAA uses several observation platforms, including satellites, aircraft, buoys, and ships; drones have great potential for expanding a ship’s observation reach. UA can augment data from weather satellites, providing higher resolution and more precise forecasts. High-altitude UA may replace a disabled or malfunctioning NOAA satellite for weather forecasting, which is critical during high-impact oceanic formations that create hurricanes or storms at sea.

NOAA also takes gravity measurements over the U.S., and using mathematical modelling, converts the data into elevation maps (for mapping flood plains, for example.) To date, manned aircraft have performed this function, but drones can provide NOAA with a much cheaper option. Drones can also greatly reduce the risk to personnel in inspecting volcanoes, fires, and earthquakes.

Disaster Management

Fire recon and mapping is safer and cheaper with drones. Drones were first used for disaster response in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when a small UA was deployed for structural inspection by the Texas A&M Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue.

Disaster areas hit by floods and earthquakes have already implemented drones for locating survivors. Electrical utility repair linemen hope to use BLOS drones someday to find out how many replacements are required for downed equipment such as broken utility poles and transformers needed to restore power. Today, repair personnel must physically navigate the disaster area and return to pick up replacements. Drones could be deployed beforehand to survey for needed equipment.

Resource Management

Although drones have primarily been used for observation strategies to now, these have already made a critical difference in cavern or mine inspection, oil spill or leak response, search and rescue operations, and for infrastructure, pipeline, and railroad track inspection. As flying computer platforms, drones offer high resolution and recordable images with repeatable execution, both of which are valuable for scientific research. As robots, drones offer the ability to work in hazardous environments, uncomfortable conditions, and for longer periods of time without breaks. When the FAA offers BLOS drone licenses, many industries will experience great cost effectiveness and faster implementation.

UAS Create Jobs

Robin Murphy, Director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University, indicates that in her experience in the aftermath of the 2015 Texas floods, a drone can take about 800 images over 20 minutes in a disaster response scenario. Each photograph takes about a minute to examine. Therefore, although drones can provide critical information, additional technology is needed for managing and interpreting excessive data. Drone operators, data scientists, and statisticians will be needed. Software engineers are needed to implement machine learning so that computers can be used to cull excess data, marking probable positive results for human inspection.

Drones, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), unmanned aircraft (UA), or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV); whatever the name, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” as Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet. Drones have a way to go as they are integrated into commercial airspace worldwide, but problems can be solved with technology and a little ingenuity. Just tell us what we need to invent.


Lynnette Reese is Executive Editor, Embedded Intel Solutions, and has been working in various roles as an electrical engineer for over two decades. She is interested in open source software and hardware, the maker movement, and in increasing the number of women working in STEM so she has a greater chance of talking about something other than football at the water cooler.

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