Few Americans are accustomed to seeing hobbyists’ drones and other pilotless aircraft in the skies regularly. But that could change soon.
Last year, the Federal Aviation Administration published a proposed rule that would allow commercial operation of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) – also referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones – without the need for an exemption. The proposed rule would allow these aircraft to be flown during the day at altitudes of up to 500 feet, as long as the vehicle remains within the line of sight of the operator.
Currently, such vehicles require a Section 333 Exemption to fly. Thousands of exemptions have been granted as hobbyists and businesses alike await adoption of the rule.
Passage of the rule, which is anticipated as early as June, could mean tens of thousands of additional aircraft crowded into the national airspace. That fact, in addition to the myriad business applications of these vehicles – everything from crop surveying to powerline inspections to the retail delivery aspirations made famous by Amazon, means that these aircraft will be a source of massive amounts of new data. Data Informed spoke with Kevin Gallagher, CEO of Simulyze, about UAS as a big data and Internet of Things use case.
Data Informed: What is the anticipated timetable for the FAA to issue a ruling on private sector flights of UAS?
Kevin Gallagher: Currently, commercial UAS flights are not authorized within the United States without specific FAA permission. The FAA is planning to release what is known as the small UAS [weighing up to 55 lbs.] rule, possibly in late June of this year. This is an important first step that will allow for limited commercial UAS operations without requiring a specific application for an exemption through the FAA. There has also been some consideration surrounding possible rules that would apply to micro UAS [weighing up to 4.4 lbs.], and even regulations that allow flights over people. It is too early to say when any additional rules will be approved and released. The regulations that would enable broader commercial applications, such as flying beyond line of sight or nighttime flying, are still needed. Some level of data sharing and traffic management, such as through the use of an operational intelligence tool like our Mission Insight, will be needed to support and implement those upcoming regulations.
What can we expect to see when that rule is issued? Are businesses ready to deploy fleets in anticipation of the ruling?
Gallagher: It will be a difficult task to predict the growth profile after the small UAS rule does get released. There are currently 400,000 drones registered with the FAA, compared to the 320,000 registered piloted aircrafts. This is all before commercial operators have the ability to fly without an exemption. The recreational and hobby usage of drones is growing and we should expect to see the commercial use of drones continuing to grow at a rapid pace after the small UAS rule is released. Many commercial applications need expanded flight capabilities to adequately and cost-effectively satisfy their mission. They will need to be equipped with certain capabilities such as the ability to fly beyond visual line of sight or with heavy vehicles or at higher altitudes, for example. When regulation allows these types of operations, the commercial market will expand with growing applications and the effective use of UAS fleets. These capabilities will require the use of operational intelligence tools that will permit UAS to operate safely within the same airspace of manned aircraft.
Amazon’s plans to use drones for retail deliveries is well-known. What are some other business applications for these aircrafts, and what kinds of data will they be collecting?
Gallagher: There are many prospective usages of drones: package delivery, news gathering, emergency management, disaster recovery, search and rescue, incident response, power line and pipeline inspection, wind turbine and bridge inspection, agriculture, surveying and cartography, cinematography and photography, construction management, and scientific research, to name just a few.
The sensor data that is collected from the mission can vary widely based on the application and sensor, which can include still images and full motion video content. The resolution can be HD as well as 4K for imagery and video. Visible as well as various infrared imagery can also be collected. LiDAR sensors can generate very high-resolution maps that can require 100 Mbps data links to transfer the data. Drone sensors will be expanding to support various business areas. Methane detectors and others will open additional growth segments for drone applications. Each of those will require mission data as well as sensor data to be processed and stored.
In addition to the data they will collect, what kinds of data will these aircrafts be creating?
Gallagher: To fly safely and efficiently, especially in more demanding commercial applications, there is a variety of data that is needed. This data would include flight plans and real-time positon and velocity, as well as other parameters such as roll, pitch, yaw, battery/fuel status, sensor status, etc. This type of data is the information that would be routinely collected by an operational intelligence tool and used for traffic management and safe flight operations, including alerting for collision warnings and deviation from the flight plan.
Along with a flight plan or flight area, there is mission data from the aircraft – location, speed, etc. There is aircraft status information – aircraft failures, communications outages, etc.; aircraft operating capabilities and limits – max speed, turn radius, wind limits, aircraft endurance, communications distance, etc.; restricted flight areas, such as near airports, over national parks, other special-use airspace, etc.; and weather data, like winds, cloud base, etc. It’s also important to consider other aircrafts that might be flying in that particular area as well as obstacles, such as towers and wind turbines. All of this data needs to be processed and monitored in all phases of the operations: pre-flight planning, flight operations, and post-flight reporting and analysis. There is a large amount of data that needs to be processed and visualized for the operators. Providing alerts and easy visualization to the operators when the aircraft deviates from its original flight plan or is flying close to a radio tower are all essential to safe operations. This real-time information also should be coordinated with overall traffic management systems to ensure safe flight operations.
What challenges does the need to process this data in real time create for organizations that will be entering the airspace? What steps must businesses take to ensure they are able to handle the volumes of streaming data these aircrafts will deliver?
Gallagher: Processing all of this available data and working with potential traffic management systems can be very time intensive. The challenge for organizations that want to use UAS in support of their business is considering more diverse environments, such as beyond visual line of sight. The data is varied, yet still must be processed reliably and robustly in order to fully support the mission. Many organizations that want to use UAS to enhance their capabilities want information from the UAS, which can include video to support a news broadcast of an event or imagery of a field to better detect crop distress. Other organizations may want to deliver a package or be able to scan an area for search-and-rescue efforts. The experts within these fields understand their business areas, but are not necessarily familiar with all the available data sources and how to process it all. Even the reporting of incidents and flight results can be a time-consuming effort. Using an operational intelligence platform, however, allows organizations to focus on their mission needs without having to develop an extensive processing capability to support their flights.
What do you anticipate this space looking like in a year? What is the near-term future for private-sector unmanned aircraft?
Gallagher: There has been significant growth within the UAS industry over the past year. That being said, it is difficult to make an accurate prediction surrounding the total number of drones sold to date. There are experts who suggest the number of aircraft that will be sold in 2016 will double or triple sales in 2015. The commercial use of drones is still awaiting regulations, which will allow for operations to take place without having to apply for an exemption. To date, there are close to 5,000 exemptions granted by the FAA.
As regulations allow broader operations, like beyond visual line of sight, the application areas will continue to expand significantly, increasing both efficiencies and cost savings. We expect to see the expansion of UAS sensor technologies to continue its rapid growth. Cameras have also decreased in size, weight and power requirements; resolutions have increased; visible and infrared imagery and video capabilities are increasing; LiDAR sensors are also widely available. Methane gas and other detectors have been demonstrated. The ability to use these and other sensors from the air are expected to provide significant cost savings and efficiencies. In addition, there are opportunities to expose unique imagery from angles that may not be achievable without a drone or access to places that may be dangerous for people.
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