Ken Elliott discusses Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and how they impact Business and General Aviation. He concludes his series considering long-term regulation, airspace operation and other related areas.
Of all the evolutionary forces influencing the future direction of unmanned aircraft, there are five that truly stand out. These include:
- Developments to improve upon the limitations and order of the current airspace
- A reassessment of the need for multiple pilots in large aircraft cockpits
- The introduction of eVTOL and hybrid propulsion
- A need to transport people and cargo close to, but not on the ground
- A growing trend for completing industrial and opportunistic enterprise autonomously.
At some point in the long-term, the outcome of these will merge within an aviation tradespace, nurtured by our fast-evolving society. A relaxation of airspace restrictions around urban centers, the competition and innovation of industry and the need to solve a regular reoccurrence of pilot shortages will further spur activity.
The development and merging will be cyclical, with peaks of rapid change, followed by virtual doldrums of normality while we soak it all in. However, there are conservative forces at work to ensure a safe and dependable transition. The keen involvement of pilot interest groups and unions will, until the time is right, ensure pilots remain in their airborne seats.
The ever present activity of nefarious groups in the business of physical destruction and cyber disruption will need to be thwarted.
Citizens concerned with privacy infringement, noise abatement and environmental impacts are requesting an audience.
Unmanned vehicles will need a recovery plan in the event of control loss, and there will need to be an adequate pototyping of each new technology.
Finally, unmanned traffic management is only just emerging and it cannot be developed in isolation.
Given the pressure for drone integration and a safety bound restraint to change, the new airspace norm is very difficult to predict or even describe. Its timeline and eventual appearance can only be guessed.
Limitations & Order of the Current Airspace
The FAA has recently engaged in figuring out solutions to a (US) North East Corridor problem. There are several major airports surrounding high density populations within the sprawling urban environments from Boston to Washington. Here the weather is unpredictable and the demand for airspace high.
This problem brings into sharp focus the shortcomings of our current hub and spoke transportation system, along with an uneasy marriage between air carriers and General Aviation. The emergent rapid air transit within this urban sprawl will only add to the dilemma.
Fixing the airspace with a major overhaul and not tinkering around its edges, may be the only viable long-term solution. The technology and knowledge resources are there, but the funds and will to act are not. Incremental changes will make new space available for all participants, with air carrier interests calling most of the shots.
Cockpit Pilot Requirement Reduction
For large transport and business aircraft in flight, there are two pilots in the cockpit, one as Pilot Flying (PF) and the other as Pilot Not Flying (PNF). This safe assumption is being challenged by the onset of reliable aircraft systems, installed with redundancy and designed for adequate risk mitigation.
Being developed and certified for transport operations these systems are most likely going to be at a sufficient level of complexity and integrity to enable pilot arrangements to change. Additionally, if a ground control station performs as a back up for an incapacitated single pilot, the risk mitigation improves.
However, it is precisely this same transportation sector that receives the most scrutiny, while its pilots have optimum representation. We should not expect a quick change here.
A potential reduction in the need for pilots is only a first step, however. On the heels of that change will be the sole use of remote pilots (a current requirement for drones – from small quadcopters to high altitude, fixed-wing military surveillance aircraft).
Much later and following that will be the implementation of fully autonomous operations. By then, after the passing of several generations of our grandchildren, populations will be totally accustomed to autonomy in all facets of life, so no big deal!
Airbus' Vahana project
eVTOL and Hybrid Propulsion
The term SWaP-c (size, weight and power with an eye on cost) will not be familiar to everyone, but the four factors of SWaP-c determine the ability of innovation to be meaningful. For instance, if any one of these factors prevents its use in the aviation field, an innovation may be a non-starter.
Advances in technology to meet the demands of SWaP-c are occurring so rapidly, start-ups are emerging everywhere.
A recent look at the eVTOL (electric Vertical Take Off and Landing) market highlighted 65 eVTOL aircraft in development, as of April 2018.
The energy source (power) is the crucial issue for eVTOL, and one way to accommodate its shortcomings is to gradually phase into full electric via hybrid technologies that initially rely on a large percentage of traditional fuels and engines.
Weight saving can partially be achieved using a remote pilot, so as eVTOL progresses through its hybrid phase there will be versions introduced without an onboard pilot.
eVTOL traffic is anticipated to be largely for people movement and package delivery, mostly transiting airspace below 400ft, while maintaining a 100ft buffer between themselves and the traditional traffic operating above 500ft.
While Google and others toy with autonomous cars and smart highways, they and others are also taking to the skies immediately above the existing ground infrastructure. The concept of regional hubs, consolidated under unmanned traffic management, will allow for operations below and above 200ft, with an overall ceiling of 400ft.
Small drones for enterprise, including personal package distribution, will be focused below 200ft and larger eVTOL transit, above. Traditional manned fixed-wing and rotorcraft will continue to traverse this overall space, operating in and out of airports and runways. (At last, the Jetsons will have taken to the skies.)
Uber’s arrangement with NASA’s Unmanned Traffic Management concept, to be trialed in Los Angeles somewhere around 2020, is a good example of the way forward within this aviation sector.
Trend to Complete Enterprise Autonomously
From insurance claims to pipeline inspections, the desire for a less intrusive, less risky and more efficient way to do business is being sought, and the use of drones answers that call. There is just so much that can be accomplished using drones, with new and smarter processes discovered daily.
Apart from fixed-wing special mission and rotorcraft public service work, there has been very little undertaken by airborne platforms not involving passengers and freight before drones came along.
Now however, airborne industrial enterprise solutions are everywhere.
This amounts to an increasing demand for airspace access, even stretching to the airspace that exists indoors (examples being the inside inspection of storage tanks and in-hangar large aircraft empannage inspections).
Manned aircraft operations include onboard space for people and cargo, but today commercial drones mostly carry small payloads (predominantly sensors and cameras recording and analyzing everything around us). The SWaP-c and performance capability of the payloads is forever improving.
This allows the drones to maintain a small size and even operate in groups (swarms). Their missions rarely involve a requirement to exceed 400ft above ground level. In the future they will be operating all around us, at beyond line of sight of the pilot.
US-Based Drone Operations Available Today
The Melting Pot
It may not be too hard to notice how energy sources, propulsion, platforms, payloads, missions and the airspace we fly in all seem to be fusing together. The enabling force of innovation is driving this so fast that anyone on the sidelines will soon feel as though they’re watching an action-packed aviation movie.
The regional and international regulations guiding the design, construction, operation and continued airworthiness of these new platforms can hardly stay abreast of innovation.
Existing certification methods are being reconsidered and rewritten to accommodate the new paradigm, while speeding up the integration process.
Also, because of the crossover taking place between platforms and their propulsion, a lot of leveraging can be applied.
Future US-Based eVTOL Unmanned Traffic Management Systems Operating Alongside Drones
What This all Means to BizAv…
Strictly managed trials and implementations are underway in several countries. Several regulation initiatives by EASA and ICAO are also in work to enable the sharing of airspace with drones. Following are a few FAA managed initiatives either underway or due to start:
- Unless very specific exemptions or approvals are obtained, drones are operating no closer than five miles from an airport and away from sensitive sights.
- Managed by the FAA, Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) programs, are being introduced to the vicinity of a significant number of airports during 2018.
- Introduced by NASA and embraced by FAA, are new Unmanned Traffic Management areas for the local control of low altitude drone operations.
- Carefully vetted, Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) and Operations Over People (OOP) trials are being conducted at dedicated test sites and locations.
- White House initiated, Department of Transport authorized and FAA managed is the Drone Integration Pilot Programs (IPP), for use by Regional, State and Local Authority and their strategic partners. Trials are due to commence later in 2018, once sites have been selected from the many web applications.
The forces at work for continued safety – ‘do no harm’ and non-interference – are providing a significant level of due diligence for all aviators and their machines.
Also, concerns of communities for privacy, identification and non-interference are providing a conservative filter of time and of complex requirements to the integration of drones and other vehicles into airspace.
This should provide a reasonable level of assurance to flight departments. Everybody wants to stay in business and make a dime, so the desire to operate within set requirements will be self-serving.
Apart from the whimsical antics of a small, unaware segment of recreational flyers, there is little for airborne pilots (as opposed to remote drone pilots), to be concerned about.
In fact, there will come a day when the flight department will have no resemblance to the one we experience today.
Tomorrow’s flight department will be an organic and dynamic mix of aircraft trackers, once called pilots, seamlessly monitoring and assessing multiple flights, involving different platforms and payloads, engaged in variable activities, all simultaneously.
But by then, anyone reading this will be long retired!