What’s the Current Impact of UAS on BizAv?

Ken Elliott discusses Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and how they impact Business and General Aviation. In a three-part series he covers the current, near and long-term status of the industry, respectively.

Ken Elliott  |  30th April 2018
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Ken Elliott
Ken Elliott

Ken Elliott is a veteran with 52 years of aviation experience, focussed on avionics in General and Business...

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Drone parked on ramp

Ken Elliott discusses Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and how they impact Business and General Aviation. In a three-part series he covers the current, near and long-term status of the industry, respectively.

It is important to begin with an understanding that currently, and for the foreseeable future, the term UAS refers to an Unmanned Aircraft System. This refers to an Authorized Operational System (AOS) and not an aircraft in isolation of its operation. An AOS consists of:

  • Platform (aircraft)
  • Payload (passengers/cargo/sensors or other tasking devices)
  • Remote Pilot (command and control, including the datalink to the platform and its payload)
  • Operational Approval by defined areas within specific airspace(s)

Note: While the term UAS is used for commercial drones, Unmanned Aircraft Vehicle (UAV) refers to Military drones. Also, the term ‘drone’ is used interchangeably with UAS within the unmanned industry.

Once the operator moves from Hobbyist to Commercial operations (or as the UAS crowd like to term it ‘Enterprise’), the rules of the game require the AOS approach. The Operational System must demonstrate risk mitigation over a wide front of considerations, ensuring safe operations throughout the flight regime, including over people.

While today, a high percentage of UAS are what we term sUAS (small UAS) that will change. In fact, the pressure for change is tremendous. A good way to look at the different categories of UAS and the reason for the pressure for change is shown in Figure 1.

UAS Size and Operational Categories

If it were not for the guidance of rules, it may only be the limitation of battery power that dictates the limits of airspace flown by a sUAS.

We address both sUAS and UAS here because some manned aircraft flight departments are already engaged in commercial sUAS operations while most flight departments will be monitoring the future implementation of the larger UAS.

Indeed, for the overall manned Business and General Aviation community, there is a gradual integration process underway that is both inevitable and transforming.

Learning to Get Along

Recent concerns raised by the Flight Safety Foundation and others are centered on recreational sUAS used exclusively, or mostly, by those operating under Part 101 (Section 336) rules. For commercial operations there is a tremendous amount of effort being applied to beef up safety-related compliance, especially where FAA Part 107 rules are being extended via waivers.

There is almost universal consensus on the need to tighten and enforce the rules applicable to the thousands of drone operators using Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) quadcopters and having no background or training in aviation. Those operators with Pilot Licenses, however, are obviously less of a risk. Drones operating under the Public Safety, Government, State and Industrial applications umbrella are also very carefully managed.

There is an important need for a demarcation of ‘drone anxiety’ perception, so that all drone ‘operations’ are not lumped into the same basket of potential bad apples.

Manned and Unmanned are two seemingly disparate flying communities that will learn to operate together in the same airspace.

When they do so, it will probably not be that much different than the collaboration that exists today between fixed-wing and helicopter operations, or private and commercial air transport activity.

Current aviation communities are continuously figuring out reliable and consistent means to use the same trade space, with their different priorities, while operating on-time and within budget.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems currently operate from a fixed point, typically without a runway, flying out to a line of sight limit and then returning to the same point (following the remote pilot’s position). Until tasks and missions move into the carriage of people and cargo, this flight pattern will continue.

It is a very different model to manned aircraft, where flying between places that can accommodate an airport is the norm.

It is important to understand the crucial differences in how UAS operate, where it is more about endurance and not about range. It is also more about 3D versatility, engaging in rapid dynamic movement, as opposed to the more predictable and methodical trajectory of manned aircraft.

Even on-demand people movement and package delivery flights will initially look like that shown in Figure 2 for mission-based unmanned activity. But for autonomous multiple passengers or freight transport, operating over longer distances, the flight patterns will begin to revert to those we are familiar with today, when using manned fixed-wing aircraft.

sUAS Flight Plans vs Manned Fixed-Wing Flights

In a sense, current unmanned flight patterns are a more localized version of helicopter operations. Figure 3, meanwhile, highlights how package and services delivery provider Amazon has an interesting perspective on the urban demarcation of airspace and in turn, a different perspective on drone operations.

An Urban Airspace Perspective from Amazon

Amazon proposes a 100ft buffer between high speed transit, to include package delivery and the fully integrated airspace, while allowing for adequate blocked space around airports, approach and terminal areas. High speed transit operates between 200-400ft (above ground level – AGL) and low speed local traffic (one presumes vehicles such as ‘flying cars’, are limited to a 200ft AGL).

A Note on Platforms

Unmanned airframes are better seen as platforms because they typically carry payload. The payload can be permanent, reusable or expendable. Today, platforms are mostly assigned to missions or tasks with interchangeable add-on payloads.

Tomorrow they will be considered for more permanent payloads, utilizing standard weight and balance for seats and cargo containers.

Interestingly, there is another dynamic underway and it is also moving at a fast pace. We are beginning to witness the blurred mix of what may be termed ‘EEP’ or Energy, Engine and Propulsion that melts away the rigid lines of separation between fixed-wing, rotorcraft, turbine, gas powered, manned, remote pilot, no pilot, etc.

Technologies that are Hybrid, VTOL and Electric are transforming the future of platforms. Whether manned or unmanned, we have a swarm of innovative aircraft and platforms about to join our skies.

Given the variety of technologies behind UAS development and the number of services they can be applied to, it is hardly surprising there are hundreds of manufacturers in the unmanned aircraft sector.

The clear majority are building quadcopters below 55lbs weight and Chinese manufacturer DJI tops the list, far outpacing all other manufacturers. DJI includes payload sensors (typically cameras), and data link communications, all for a fraction of traditional aviation prices.

Many platform and payload providers are start-ups with working capital capped at between $1m-5m and if their venture does not reap rewards quickly, they are either history or sold within a couple of years.

Traditionally, anything unmanned that resembled a traditional helicopter or fixed wing aircraft has been deployed in either the military, government or for public services. That is now not the case. There is a plethora of manufacturers across the world who are developing rotor and fixed wing platforms, including VTOL and hybrid arrangements.

The big aerospace players such as Airbus, Boeing and Textron have dedicated divisions to the task, each having advanced programs in place.

Along with others such as Amazon, Uber, Insitu, PrecisionHawk, Google, Kratos, Leonardo, Volocopter, SureFly (the list goes on) there is a push to develop platforms that carry people and cargo as well as traditional commercial UAS services.

Because of technology blurring, it is difficult to differentiate between traditional flight operations and the emerging new. Not only will the technologies be hybrid but so will the operations. For example, it is likely that some aircraft will operate both with and without pilots, depending upon where and how they fly.

Operating drones will swarm in synchronized formations, utilizing Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V) datalink, as they weave seamlessly through an airspace using 4D Performance Based Navigation (4D PBN), along with all the other aircraft.

Essentially, 4D PBN ensures aerial vehicles arrive at specific points in 3D space at predetermined times by managing the precise performance (and therefore speed), ensuring an accurate arrival and adequate spacing.

Platforms will develop incrementally in both their ability and their autonomy, closely aligned to what is enabled by airworthiness and air traffic authorities. However, that does not remove the tremendous pressure from industry to advance at a fast pace.

Those astute safety organizations, such as the widely respected Flight Safety Foundation (FSF) will ensure brakes are applied as necessaryThere are several ways to delineate the many types and uses of unmanned aircraft systems, including those in Table A.

UAS Platform Delineation

When viewed from a package delivery perspective, the perspective of platform delineation also differs, for example, that of delivery provider Amazon (see Figure 4, below). Amazon’s view delineates by platform capability, measuring airspace access as a level of operational complexity.

Amazon's Delineation of Drones

On the other hand, when viewed from an on-demand, people moving perspective, the focus shifts to an airspace transition between areas of urban concentration and to platforms delineated by range and performance using hybrid VTOL.

A study of Uber’s late 2016 Elevate White Paper (https://www.uber.com/elevate.pdf) reveals a well thought out approach to many considerations necessary for such an undertaking.

Uber’s paper assumes piloted and non-piloted (autonomous) platforms, again representing an example blurring between the familiar world of fixed-wing or rotorcraft manned aircraft, moving into hybrid-VTOL, while incrementally transitioning from manned to unmanned.

Command and Control

Being remote from the pilot, UAS require both command and control. The pilot both commands the maneuvering of the platform and remains in constant control of its movement, including an ability to recover, or return to home-base.

The Europeans like to use the term Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) for unmanned platforms. Significantly, RPAS requires the use of a certified pilot, remotely in control. Of course, this also applies elsewhere, even though the term UAS is being used. What it does not refer to is autonomous, or ‘without humans in the loop’.

Figure 5 clearly demonstrates the removal of the traditional cockpit into a remote-control ground station. The remote control can be anything from a sophisticated joystick to a full cockpit-like facility. The complexity of the remote pilot ground station is dictated by the flight and mission requirements and may include additional personnel for monitoring and real-time data analysis.

Onboard Equipment

For most sUAS, onboard equipment may include:

  • Energy-Engine-Propulsion (EEP), i.e. Battery, Motors and Propellers
  • Stability and Geo Reference
  • Air Data and Autopilot
  • Communication as Datalink (Wi-Fi Internet)
  • Navigation (GPS)
  • Any Aerodynamic Surface Movement Control (with fixed-wing sUAS for example)

The above list provides for line of sight operations, so may be considered baseline equipage. Once you move into UAS and gain approval to operate beyond line of sight, however, the equipage expands to provide the ability to:

  • Detect and Avoid
  • Track and Monitor
  • Recover and Avoid Loss of Link
  • Identify
  • Have Advanced Datalink
  • Have Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V) Datalink
  • Have Advanced Wi-Fi Internet
  • Have Advanced Navigation
  • Have Cyber Security
  • Operate Over 24-hour Period and in all Weather

Some of the equipment necessary to provide these capabilities is only just being developed along with the standards defining the requirement.

Payload Matters

The need to handle payload drives the size and performance requirements of the platform. The energy source, engine and method of propulsion (EEP), are all crucial to the performance and therefore a limiting factor for payload capacity and weight.

For quadcopters and the services, they provide, payload is not currently a major concern. They are not carrying humans or anything significant in the way of cargo. Mostly they are carrying sensors capable of measuring, monitoring, videoing and mapping which mostly entails the use of a camera (visual or thermal).

For the new rotor, fixed-wing, hybrid and VTOL UAS there is an obvious tendency to follow a more traditional aircraft design, to carry humans and cargo, or be equipped with more capable sensors and radars (including LiDAR), as found in the special missions environment of today.

Payloads satisfy missions and for commercial or enterprise drones, the mission list is extensive, but do tend to fall under main industrial categories, including:

  • Oil and Gas
  • Rail
  • Mining
  • Mapping
  • Search and Rescue
  • Construction
  • Agriculture
  • Environment
  • Insurance

Interestingly drones are being used off-shore by the oil and gas industry for platform inspection and now are being launched from ships for maritime work. There are even submersible drones, including those used for game changing military advantage (as announced recently by Russia and likely being explored elsewhere).


We are entering the grey area of flight operations that entails the implementation of both hybrid manned aircraft and a variety of different unmanned platforms. Furthermore, these new machines will need to operate in flight regimes that are not typical of those flown throughout the authorized airspace today.

Corporate and General Aviation operators are finding uses for drones and seeking ways to implement them as integral to their existing operations.

As industry discovers and expands the use of drones, and as the Amazons, Googles and Ubers mingle with the Airbus, Boeings and Textrons on the trading floor, there will be enormous pressure to adopt and utilize drones as UAS just about anywhere.

Our regulators are feeling the pain and the White House has added to what has already been inflicted with its initiation of a new UAS Integrated Pilot Program (IPP), set to begin the testing of drones by several state, local, or tribal government entities, beginning sometime after May of 2018.

Canada also has plans for a proof of concept trial program involving carefully monitored tests by selected drone teams. These tests are necessary to enable the regulators to provide realistic yet safe guidance for UAS operations, based on data received from actual in-service testing.

Next time, we will consider the medium-term operational aspects of UAS, and expand on the incremental process of UAS airspace integration. Stay tuned…

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Read More About: UAS/UAV/Drones | Airspace Regulations


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