By Mike Tully, president and CEO, Aerial Services Inc. (www.aerialservicesinc.com), Cedar Falls, Iowa.
For the geospatial and remote sensing professions, unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) represent the most significant onslaught of enabling technology since the first camera took flight 150 years ago. When UAS technology is combined with virtual unrestricted access to the U.S. national airspace system (NAS) for anyone and any business—think “personal remote sensing”—the repercussions for our culture and economy will grow by orders of magnitude. The influence of UAS technology will be felt in nearly every major area of commerce.
Miniaturization, location and wireless communication technologies have conspired to enable pilotless and remotely piloted sensor nets to safely crisscross the U.S. national airspace unlike ever before. UASs will perform an unprecedented amount of remote sensing and surveillance work that has the potential to saturate the country with many benefits.
UASs will come in all shapes and sizes, and they’ll be designed for myriad uses—most of which haven’t even been considered. During the next 1-5 years, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is expected to let small UASs (< 55lbs) fly in certain unpopulated areas for commercial purposes much lower than civil or commercial aircraft. The agency recently selected six UAS research and test site operators across the country to investigate future UAS use (see “FAA Selects Six Sites for Unmanned Aircraft Research,” below).
Most analysts believe the agriculture, real estate and emergency management markets will be among the first to benefit. Once a notice of proposed rulemaking is released, possibly this year, personal and commercial interests could take to the skies like a nest of disturbed hornets.
Unlike other “incremental” technologies that came before UASs, such as digital cameras, light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology and softcopy photogrammetry, UAS technology will become a great enabler for the masses to perform remote sensing and mapping because it opens the NAS to so many people. This is the revolutionary aspect of UAS technology and why it will impact society and culture so significantly. Assuming policy doesn’t throttle such advances, it isn’t difficult to envision a reality where virtually anyone, anytime, anywhere could perform remote sensing.
The same technologies of miniaturization, location and wireless communication also have enabled a new species of bird in the air called “microsatellites,” which will play a similar role as UASs in geospatial and remote sensing. For example, the Dove series of microsatellites launched by San Francisco-based Planet Labs (www.planet-labs.com) is in service today above the NAS to photograph most of Earth several times each day at low resolution. Similarly, Mountain View, Calif.-based Skybox Imaging (www.skyboximaging.com) offers sub-meter color and near-infrared imagery from its new SkySat-1 microsatellite.
Microsatellite ventures are well funded because investors see great value in the geographic reach, currency, resolution and price of this remotely sensed information. Consider how such imagery will benefit thousands of small businesses that desire to leverage global, near-instant geospatial information. The Doves are only the first “flock” of inexpensive, on-demand, global remote sensing satellites to take flight. Many other microsatellites with increasing resolution will be buzzing over the globe in the next few years, providing unprecedented quantities of visual—and eventually 3-D—information.
Virtual reality is another important new technology aligning well with UAS technology. Oculus Rift headsets, developed by Oculas VR (www.oculusvr.com), Irvine, Calif., are set to make a big impact in our lives and work. The combination of UAS technology and inexpensive, realistic virtual reality will further open the 3-D world for the common person as never before. Anyone could “climb aboard” a small UAS and tour the Grand Canyon—even remotely pilot the vehicle and fly wherever they want within a “geofence” imposed by the provider. Virtual reality technology has the potential to redefine human experience and will almost certainly be strapped to UAS vehicles to provide the masses with views from above that have been impossible—or at least uncommon—to date.
Soon a network of tiny, flying sensors will allow us to unlock amazing wildlife secrets, gain insights on violent weather events, and learn about climate, air pollution, migrations, human activity and hundreds of other applications. For the first time, the common person and ordinary business will be able to access the NAS recreationally and commercially. Today, except for the few pilots among us, few people have 3-D access to the real world outside of passively sitting inside a commercial airliner.
The boon of personal remote sensing for business, science and recreation is hard to overstate. Certainly there are legitimate privacy concerns that UAS purveyors and users must address responsibly and professionally. Never–theless, access to the skies over our heads is about to explode. UASs, microsatellites and virtual reality will transform NAS access for the masses. Personal remote sensing by large numbers of individuals and businesses will become routine and common.
After a rigorous 10-month selection process involving 25 proposals from 24 states, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently selected the following six unmanned aircraft system (UAS) research and test site operators:
University of Alaska. The University of Alaska proposal contained a diverse set of test site range locations in seven climatic zones as well as geographic diversity with test site range locations in Hawaii and Oregon. The research plan includes the development of a set of standards for unmanned aircraft categories, state monitoring and navigation. Alaska also plans to work on safety standards for UAS operations.
State of Nevada. Nevada’s project objectives concentrate on UAS standards and operations as well as operator standards and certification requirements. The applicant’s research also will include a concentrated look at how air traffic control procedures will evolve with the introduction of UASs into the civil environment. Nevada’s selection contributes to geographic and climatic diversity.
New York’s Griffiss International Airport. Griffiss International plans to work on developing test and evaluation as well as verification and validation processes under FAA safety oversight. The applicant also plans to focus its research on sense and avoid capabilities, and its sites will aid in researching the complexities of integrating UASs into the congested, northeast airspace.
North Dakota Department of Commerce. North Dakota plans to develop UAS airworthiness data and validate high-reliability link technology. In addition, the applicant will conduct human factors research. North Dakota’s application was the only one to offer a test range in the temperate (continental) climate zone and included a variety of different airspaces that will benefit multiple users.
Texas A&M University—Corpus Christi. Texas A&M plans to develop system safety requirements for UAS vehicles and operations with a goal of protocols and procedures for airworthiness testing. The selection of Texas A&M contributes to geographic and climactic diversity.
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). Virginia Tech plans to conduct UAS failure mode testing and identify and evaluate operational and technical risks areas. The proposal includes test site range locations in Virginia and New Jersey.