13 February 2012 by Paul Dempsey
The popular image of UAS is dominated by the Predator and other spy drones that prowl over Afghanistan on the hunt for terrorist training camps. But the aviation industry has been pushing for years to bring the same technology to commercial use, for everything from crop monitoring to fully-laden airfreight. Following bipartisan approval in the Senate - and yes, you read that right - it should get its wish within the next four years.
The provisions on seeding a US unmanned aviation market are within a long overdue spending authorisation for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Until now, it has muddled by on a series of interim budgets and even endured one short shutdown, in spite of its massive safety responsibility for US air traffic control.
The main part of the new bill, which now awaits President Obama's signature, transitions US air traffic control from a radar- to a GPS-based system. The $11bn (£7bn) upgrade will overhaul a 50-year old system in response to an anticipated 50% increase in flights over the next few years. That extra capacity - as well as the extra safety implicit in a GPS system that will monitor airplanes every second rather than every five or six seconds - is what will provide air lanes for UAS.
"I'm confident that once people can fly UAS in the national airspace for civil and commercial purposes, such as oil and pipeline monitoring, crop dusting, and search and rescue, a whole new industry will emerge, inventing products and accomplishing tasks we haven't even thought of yet," said Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the sector's trade association, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Research by the Teal Group claims suggests the UAS sector could "more than double over the next decade from current worldwide expenditures of $4.9bn annually to $11.5bn, totaling just over $80bn in the next 10 years."
Even with the bill's passage, UAS are not yet necessarily a done deal. The FAA package does mandate that commercial flights must begin before September 2015 (and bear in mind that deadline could slip depending on when the legislation is signed). However, it does not address any of the civil liberties issues associated with large sensor-packed machines flying overhead.
Human rights groups have already indicated - with some justification - that they are going to raise concerns about not merely airborne photographic intrusion but also wifi 'sniffers' and other monitoring technologies being allowed to exist in private hands. Indeed, there are already worries that UAS operated by domestic US law enforcement, largely for border control, are not yet suitably regulated.
Nevertheless, high technology industries can already sense a market that they see growing as fast as mobile communications or even tablet computing, even if the ultimate value will be smaller.
Meanwhile, the European Union is fearful of being left behind. There's already been a push from the continent's leading air forces to develop UAS for military use, so as not to be overly dependent on today's US and Israeli mil-aero market leaders.
This has now expanded to include a drive to seed a parallel European civil market, with the European Defence Agency sponsoring a meeting only a few days ago in Brussels aimed at laying the foundations for an EU UAS timetable that matches that before the FAA.
Posted By: Paul Dempsey @ 13 February 2012 12:44 AM General
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