UAS are moving faster than anyone guessed. Trade show goers, tech promoters, inventors, and the military may have had the best insight in the beginning, but now it is up to the entrepreneurs, the tech developers, the investors, and the visionaries to embrace unmanned systems. The promise and the problem that UAS presents is simply too big to tackle for any one industry, from any one view point and therefore today, I am going to take on three differing perspectives. I think of myself as all three: an entrepreneur looking to be involved in a UAS tech start-up through my most recent education at the USC Marshall School of Business; a government relations expert from my work in UAS industry consensus groups ASTM and RTCA or my education from the Pepperdine School of Public Policy; and an educator and safety expert from my career with the USC Aviation Safety & Security Program within the Viterbi School of Engineering.
My background is diverse. I am not a military guy, and I am barely a hobbyist. I grew up flying fly-by-wire planes in a small circle and inevitably crashing into rock piles above Los Angeles. I sometimes lost Estes rockets into trees near Irvine. I come to UAS from the standpoint of government relations, entrepreneurship, and safety. So, maybe I can do some service to each view point, and capture the essence of the frustration and optimism from all sides. Ultimately, I hope to show that while these perspectives differ in their focus, they all want the best for industry – a long-0term solution that integrates UAS safely and with the protection of the public at heart.
Unmanned Aircraft Systems have been the promised mecca of aviation for now 10+ years, and if the regulators would just step out of the way for a moment, the industry could develop the needed technologies of tomorrow, today. Small UAS, encompassing the size and speed that nearly every investor wants to incorporate into their agricultural, biological, or industrial operation have little to no chance of causing damage or hurting anyone. Previous regulations have been confusing with AC 91-57 identifying less than 55 lbs and less than 400 feet as hobbyist aircraft space, but not for hire. Why would the intent of the activity matter if the safety implications were the same? In fact, it is often safer to use UAS for operations that currently helicopters or lightweight aircraft are being used for – shooting movies, crop dusting, pipeline monitoring, wildlife preserves, fire spotting, or law enforcement support. We’re providing greater levels of safety than existed previously! The fuel and energy reduction from these current practices can’t come too soon, and the cost savings will increase employment, promote development of more advanced technologies, and enable new and exciting uses for aircraft in general. The costs are heavily outweighed by the benefits.
Regulations aren’t forth coming, and the domestic market is being hurt. Already, Google and Amazon have seen fit to leave the US for testing and development as a direct result of FAA inability to regulate. Without clear guidance and direction the US is losing market share internationally. National security is reduced as UAS technologies flow out from the US. Simply put, the US is hurting itself as we fail to regulate and as government fails to listen to business. The AUVSI report from 2013 underestimated the loss as, “U.S. will lose $10 billion in potential economic impact every year that UAS integration in the airspace is delayed.” We’re losing money, we’re losing leadership, and we’re losing opportunities to succeed!
This is still the perfect time to invest. There is money flowing to UAS and automated vehicle systems technologies that can all lead to amazing gains and returns for investors. Air ware raised $13.3 Million in 2012 and CyPhy works raised $7 million in 2013 both through traditional Venture Capital. Aurora Flight Sciences recently raised $15 million in private capital and hundreds of Kickstarer campaigns have proven demand for start-ups just now seeking VC. Looking at the Hype Cycle, UAS are at a particularly positive time for involvement and, in my opinion, are actually gaining market competitiveness unnaturally by the spotlight on the government regulations. The longer the standards take, the more time technology has to mature, and the less competition from abroad the market will face. It is up to real entrepreneurs to find ways around the hold-up, and to be market ready when the regulations slacken (Estimated September 2016). I am heartened by sUAS Notice of Public Rulemaking and believe that the future is a bright one for UAS in the US airspace.
The Government Regulator
Unmanned Aircraft Systems are hard to deal with and the problem changes every 6 months. Where some would have you believe that the problems facing full integration into the national airspace are technological in nature – and can therefore be invented away – they are wrong. The United States airspace and the international airspace system as led by the International Civil Aviation Organization is a highly complex, layered, multi-use environment that requires various levels of knowledge, responsibility, and certification prior to entry. It is an environment and system that has developed over a century and it has changed dramatically in that time. The Federal Aviation Administration strives to ensure that this environment is safe foremost, and accessible to the public. It also must ensure that regulations published today can work with the regulations published throughout the last century, and that the definitions that exist in the airspace are not violated.
When a UAS needs to identify itself, what is the best way to do that? At what point is an aircraft safe because of its speed and weight, and what point does it become a missile if falling from the sky? Previously, as long as the aircraft occupants were safe in the sky, those on the ground could be protected. Now that there are no aircraft occupants, what is the appropriate level of safety? Does population density matter – how do you consider that density in the classic risk mitigation matrix used for regulations today? All these questions are new and must be considered before making a final decision, and including industry in these discussion has seen mixed results.
The technology for UAS developed quickly and the demand for it domestically increased dramatically. GPS technology proliferation, micro-controllers, miniaturization of components, and computerization of micro-sensors enables UAS to reach a level of use that was here-to-fore regarded as unlikely. Quickly, and because of war demand, UAS captured the spotlight and gains in the ability of the equipment provided for uses in the national airspace.
We must work within a context of civil engagement and government responsibilities to create regulations that fit the empowering legislation by Congress. That legislation was developed by politicians seeking an influx of money for their states through Test Sites that haven’t made any money, and government infrastructure investment which hasn’t been funded either. We must not step beyond our ability to regulate, and accomplish the goals of industry and government. In response, RTCA & ASTM industry consensus standards groups were developed to establish an interface between private companies, public utilities, and the regulators. We help develop the standards, and rather than the government members holding us back, it is the private companies that fight for “their system” whether its air based sense and avoid or ground based sense and avoid, or a way establish test reliability. Years of work have been lost simply because leadership has been changed at the request of a powerful company to the right Senator.
So, before you blame the regulators, let’s take a look at the system within which the regulator must operate. This is an extremely large, difficult, and complex problem. Oh, and how much money was allotted specifically for this effort by Congress – See Table 1.0 Below:
Table 1.0: $0,000,000.000
The Educator and Safety Expert
As an educator and safety expert at the University of Southern California, I am excited to be leading the effort that will establish Best Practices for conducting Risk Assessments for UAS Design, Airworthiness, and Operations. We get to apply our world-leading safety curriculum and knowledge to an application just now being realized in aviation. By starting at the beginning and by promoting safety as the focus for UAS flights and operations, we can avoid the years of bloodshed manned aviation has had to learn from to create a safe, reliable, and exciting future for UAS.
Our main focus is ensuring that Safety Management Systems (SMS) is included in the regulatory framework moving forward just as it is being included now by the FAA for Air Carriers and Airports. SMS provides the understanding that all members of an operation or organization are responsible for safety and security and that only through hazard identification, assessment of those hazards for risk, the mitigation of that risk, and the constant communication from all levels of management of what is acceptable and not acceptable, can an organization truly consider itself approaching safety in the best manner.
UAS will only flourish if safety is the major consideration. Entrepreneurs, politicians, educators, and regulators must come together to help develop the data collection methodologies necessary for quickly developing a safety regime that will ensure the long-term success of unmanned aviation. We are just at the beginning of unmanned aircraft proliferation throughout the national airspace, and while new technologies will inevitably develop, safety is not furthered exclusively with redundancy and complex systems, but through the increased knowledge and training of all organizations, operators, and enthusiasts looking to play a role in UAS activities.
Conclusion and Shameless Advertisement
All three perspectives are vital to understanding the pull and push of the UAS industry. We cannot truly understand the complexity of a situation without first believing that others involved in tho ecosystem of unmanned aviation have an equally logical, reasonable, and educated process for coming to their own conclusions. Top that end, I encourage you all to take the USC Safety Management Systems for Remotely Piloted Aircraft course listed below. It will offer all the knowledge and instruction you need to understanding the regulatory, entrepreneurial, and safety environment of Unmanned Aircraft.