The continuous evolution of aviation has seen the emergence of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

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Introduction

The continuous evolution of aviation has seen the emergence of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Recent developments in international conflicts call for an economical and increased aerial presence without posing threats to pilots. UASs have commonly been used for military purposes, but most companies and agencies have expressed interests in venturing into commercial and public uses, including law enforcement, firefighting, search, and rescue. All UASs are operated from the ground currently. The controllability of operators ranges from altering high-level aspects of mission to full control of UAs. The United States has benefited from the low cost, limited risk reconnaissance, high endurance, and strike capabilities of UASs. Commercial applications of UASs are on the rise, and the market demand has increased proportionately. These include communications, broadcast, aerial photography, monitoring environmental conditions, surveying land and crops, and protecting specific infrastructures. Through UAS, civil and public operators could find new ways of enhancing the nation’s aviation operations. This can be done through decreased costs and operational efficiency while NAS safety is kept intact. To meet these demands, it will be necessary to integrate UASs into the National Airspace System (NAS).

The National Airspace System provides access to a wide range of users such as military aircraft, general aviation, and commercial airlines. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for ensuring the safety of all operations carried out under the NAS. Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations spells out the FAA mandate. This provision has a set of standards and regulations to guide all NAS users with certain exceptions applicable only to military aircrafts. Despite there being no specific mention of UASs under Title 14, the provisions can be interpreted to cover UASs. The unclear meaning of Title 14 has hampered investments in commercial UAS technology. The heated debate on whether UASs can “see and avoid” other aircrafts coupled with the absence of standard requirements are pertinent issues hindering the progress of commercial applications of UASs.

The mission of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is to provide the world’s safest and most efficient aviation system. The United States is ahead of other countries primarily due to her infrastructure, commitment to excellence and safety, diversity of user groups, and the background of leadership and innovation. Currently, the FAA is working to come up with new systems and breed a culture that boosts efficiency, safety, reliability, environmental performance, and capacity within the aviation system (Luxhoj & Oztekin, 2009).

The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office was set up to facilitate safe and efficient integration of UAS to the NAS. To achieve this goal, FAA works together with several other stakeholders such as commercial vendors, manufacturers, technical standard organizations, industry trade associations, research and development centers, academic institutions, and governmental agencies. Eventually, the integration of the two systems must take place without driving down current capacity, affecting current operators negatively, hampering safety, and multiplying risks to users or persons on the ground more than other new forms of technology similarly integrated. Although significant steps have been taken towards integrating UAS and NAS, challenges and opportunities lie ahead (Dalamagkidis, Valavanis & Piegl, 2008).

One of the major functions of FAA is to develop policy, regulations, guidance material, procedures, and training requirements that support efficient and safe UAS operations within NAS, while working together with relevant agencies and departments to solve such concerns as national security and privacy. UAS currently access airspace upon receiving Certificates of Authorization (COA) to those operating publicly while civil applicants require special airworthiness certificates. This state of regulations will transition to intense integration processes when revised operating rules and procedures are enforced in a manner that UAS can comply. There is a proven certification process under the auspices of FAA, which include the establishment of special conditions whenever new and technologies are involved. The process will be useful in the evaluation of items to which UAS is not familiar. For NAS segments that have demanding requirements of communication, surveillance performance, and navigation, it will be necessary for UAS to demonstrate its capacity to meet such requirements.

Applicable FAA Regulation

Despite the initial debate that UASs should be classified as vehicles and not aircrafts, the current state of the law holds UASs to be aircrafts. For this reason, UASs are now regulated by 14 CFR, which includes Part 91. Consequently, UASs should conform to all procedures originally established for aircrafts.

Flight Rules

The NAS flight procedures are categorized into two: Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) and Visual Flight Rules (VFR). A pilot can follow distinct traffic and navigation separation procedures based on these two categories and depending on the prevailing visual meteorological conditions. Before a pilot can fly outside visual meteorological conditions, he or she has to obtain certification to fly under IFR. In addition, the aircraft has to be well equipped. The two rules form the framework within which the UAS can operate in the NAS. Manufacturers could choose to fly under VFR, which is easier to implement. On the other hand, other pilots could be required in both VFR and IFR to detect and avoid.

Airspace Classes

There are six classes of airspace under the NAS. Each of these classes has different requirements for operation, which range from the more restrictive classes such as A, B, C, and D to classes that are less complex such as E and G. UAS sensors should be made according to the relative risk associated with flying under certain airspace classes. For this reason, limiting UASs to airspaces that are less congested would be the most effective method of mitigating risks and reducing costs. Propositions of this nature allow the collection of data on UAS performance and the establishment of an incremental basis through which further integration into NAS could be sought. Just as the Northrop Gunman Global Hawk that flies perfectly above normal air, the UAS must still go through flight corridors of airspaces A, B, C, and D before it can reach the altitudes of cruising. For this reason, smaller UASs in class G and that stay away from flight corridors could form an initial proving ground on which future UASs may be developed.

Creating Safe Civil UASs

Most investors in the US have been convinced of the numerous applications to which UASs can be put. These investors have come up with airframes and sensors to use commercially. On the contrary, none of these airframes and sensors have been said to comply with the US Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR), particularly parts 23 and 91. The part of FAR that describe the operation rules of aircrafts, overall airworthiness of these aircrafts, and their minimum design standards. One of the key concerns revolving around safety is whether UASs can detect and avoid other aircrafts within the NAS. Moreover, UASs pose risks to property and people on the ground.

Technological improvements in recent times suggest the possibility of the industry reducing the associated risks in a significant way. Companies have started to validate control systems, which can detect and avoid non-cooperative aircrafts. If these systems are combined with visual line restrictions, the kinetic energy and material density of UASs could reduce damage to property and people on the ground.

Collision Avoidance Sensor Technology

Despite evidence that collision avoidance technology is a factor extensively outside the visual sight level, much research has gone into collision avoidance sensors using passive and active technology in equal measure. The industry has put more focus on electro-optical, acoustic and microwave sensors. These sensor types each have strengths and weaknesses. No sensor is capable of replacing the eyes of the pilot completely (Watts, Ambrosia & Hinkley, 2012). For instance, active light-imaging and ranging (LIDAR) use lasers. These makes them have a greater range compared to radars, but are capable of blinding approaching pilots.

SARA, Inc. has developed other passive acoustic sensors. The sensors have certain over human pilots. For instance, they are capable of detecting non-cooperative aircraft approaching from all directions. In addition, they have greater light range and are less costly. According to the test results of UASs fitted with these sensors, there was early detection that gave enough time to maneuver in cases of head-on collisions and loud background noise. The weakness of these sensors is that they can only detect noisy aircrafts (Watts et al., 2012). This means that balloons and gliders cannot be detected.

If appropriate sensors are matched, it is possible to create an excellent system of collision detection. For instance, PANCAS could be combined with the system of electrooptical (camera) to surmount challenges of detecting noiseless aircrafts. Sensors have strengths and weaknesses. The strength of one sensor could be used to replace the weakness of another sensor. Evidence has proven that it could be advantageous to combine sensors on the basis of relative strengths.

Industry Collision Avoidance Demonstrations

Despite the tests that have gone into industry sensors, there have been rare actual flight demonstrations. The long delay and bureaucracy in obtaining FAA approval and scarcity of funds have made it difficult for businesses to demonstrate avoidance technology. In 2003, NASA demonstrated a number of civil avoidance capabilities using a Proteus aircraft. They depended on satellite and radar to relay information. However, the very expensive equipment were used in these tests. Some of the radar units were too heavy to be used in small UASs to detect incoming aircrafts (Huaj & Narayanan, 2011).

Using its PANCAS system, SARA, Inc. successfully conducted a ground simulation test and obtained positive results. Upon being subjected to acoustic signatures from a different aircraft, the PANCAS system could detect and avoid the source of these signatures in a consistent manner by making a simple turn to the right. A number of companies such as the L-3 Communications and AAI Corporation have obtained special experimental airworthiness certificates, which permit them to conduct development tests. Future experiments are likely to provide FAA with additional data for improving collision avoidance technology. The data, however, will be gathered slowly due to the relatively few number of companies using UASs commercially, having been granted certificates from FAA (Huaj & Narayanan, 2011).

Defense Research

Despite the applicability of much defense research to commercial UASs, priority has been given to UAS performance by the military. On the other hand, businesses wishing to become part of NAS are focusing more on safety. On the contrary, there has been increased reliability of UAS due to their increased performance. Statistics have documented decrease in UAS mishaps with increase in hours of flight. Humans cause most of the errors in UAS mishaps (Watts et al., 2012).

There is a strong case for integrating UAS to NAS. Although military UAS primarily focus on performance, they have nonetheless attained the safety level characteristic of manned military aircraft. Moreover, most UAS are designed in a way enabling them to perform in dangerous conditions. This contributes to the high rates of mishaps. Considering that the commercial UAS industry is putting more focus on safety, expectations are high that the industry could reach the manned aircraft safety fast enough if guided by standard-based regulation. Moreover, most commercial UASs will operate on platforms tested and proven previously by military use.

Extensive investment in UAS technology development is being undertaken by the United States Department of Defense (DoD) due to the increasing demand for UAS emission scenarios. Presently, the DoD is financing efforts in autonomy, communication systems, and pilot training. Moreover, the DoD has put up certain standards and adopted the ASTM International’s F-2411standard of sense and avoid to help in efficient procurement of UASs worldwide and meet the goals and specifications of performance (Watts et al., 2012). The data and technology research carried out by DoD has influenced the commercial UAS industry hugely.

Anticipated Industry Challenges

A number of economic and industry challenges are hampering UAS use commercially. Possibly, the biggest barrier is the absence of an appropriate definition for the restricted class of UASs, which offers fast, but limited access to operations. The process of getting certification to conduct experiments is a lengthy one and designed to standalone exceptions (Rango & Laliberte, 2010). Absence of NAS usage particularly in low-risk situations has made the industry manage to gather data to minimize the high costs of insurance, demonstrate systems reliability, and display UAS advantages. The associated high costs of insurance further eat into research funds and data collection. For instance, 24% of NASA tests operation costs goes to insurance.

Anticipated FAA Challenges

As the industry and various agencies stepped up applications for COAs and experimental certificates, the FAA established the Unmanned Aircraft Program Office that handles UASs only. Due to the lack of standard-based regulations for UASs, all applications have to be reviewed thoroughly regardless of the simplicity or low-risk nature of the case. There is a rise in applications for UAS operation in NAS. The office has a growing backlog of applications due to scarcity of resources. In addition to handling UASs, the office is tasked with establishing regulatory frameworks for UAS integration into NAS on the same level of staff and resources.

Much pressure is put on the FAA to come up with roadmaps for integrating UASs into the NAS. The other factor compelling the establishment of regulations is the fear that UASs may be used for illegal purposes. UASs may sometimes be simple aircrafts with modifications. Bills such as the H.R. 2698 have increased funds for UAS research, but they give no funds to the FAA for the creation of UAS regulations to enable NAS access. The NAS should use resources from outside to meet its goals besides requesting for more funds.

Conclusion

Detect and avoid engineering solutions are necessary for UAS successful operation. Fatal accidents could arise leading to loss of lives and damage to property if these solutions are not implemented effectively. This paper has explored the need to integrate UAS into NAS because the two systems are interdependent. Before such integration can be done, UAS technology should be efficient enough to reduce mishaps to the lowest level possible or eliminate the same altogether. This paper has proposed the swapping of weaknesses with strengths of sensors, for instance, to produce an all-round effective sensing technique.

Recommendations

Integrating UASs into the NAS has proven complex. There exist competing interests of stakeholders, which makes it difficult to arrive at a consensus. However, several tools are available that can make the government and industry to facilitate the integration process, which will bring numerous benefits of UASs to the society.

The industry should continue with research activities. It is essential to test combined collision avoidance sensors for all UAS operations beyond visual range. A number of sensors have been developed, but not demonstrated yet. Despite the seemingly acceptable levels of collision detection technology so far, a number of factors hinder the integration of UAS into NAS. For UASs that cannot use TCAS, several avoidance algorithms have been developed. On top of that, the industry has not yet gotten solutions to frequency allocation and communication links. If research is continued, UASs will eventually find space in the NAS.

The industry should widen participation in developing standards and communicating with the FAA. The industry should continually let the FAA know its concerns. Moreover, officials should encourage all manufacturers to approach them for application. UAS standards in specific applications should be combined with the standards used in small UASs according to the performance criteria. The industry cannot have guidelines if there are no standards to measure test results. It is for this reason that debates have heightened over acceptable safety levels in the NAS. Stakeholders in the UAS industry could end the debate by taking part in the development of standards. International standards can be used for uniform requirements. Active industry participation in the development of standards is important for the progress of UAS technology. Studies have established that using consensus standards can speed up the means through which regulators can make rules and enforce the same. It is possible for regulators to collaborate with the industry through consensus standards forum. This would enable them develop frameworks for limited operations and create a medium for data collection. It could also facilitate the integration of other complex aspects of the NAS.

Regulators and policymakers should establish test centers to facilitate non-visual range civil UAS research. Only a small part of UAS practical applications involves visual range applications. Regulating UAS outside the visual line necessitates heightened deliberation and portfolio standards. Independent test centers should be set up for demonstrating research and avoidance technology. This would relieve the FAA of some burden. The power to issue experimental certificates could be given to an independent entity. This could be a university, for instance. Such delegation of power could enable NAS applicants obtain certification quickly. The certification workload is shared as standards development continues. Such centers should be limited to the use of small UASs. This will capture more applications without posing higher risks.

Lastly, FAA funding should be stepped up for purposes of regulating UAS integration. Most stakeholders can admit that incorporating UAS safely into the NAS is both a monumental task and a priority. Despite the ability of the FAA Unmanned Aircraft Program to reduce costs as it commences the establishment of regulations for small UASs, the body needs more funds to carry out long-term integration regulations. There is a huge difference between UASs and other aircrafts. Current FAA regulations have been designed solely for manned aircrafts. The FAA may have to consider many standards and experimental data besides tweaking some of its crucial documents before it can regulate all UASs integration into the NAS.

References

Dalamagkidis, K., Valavanis, K. P. and Piegl, L. A. (2008). On unmanned aircraft systems

issues, challenges and operational restrictions preventing integration into the National Airspace System. Progress in Airspace Sciences, 44(7-8), 503-519.

Dalamagkidis, K., Valavanis, K. P. and Piegl, L. A. (2008). Current Status and Future

Perspectives for Unmanned Aircraft System Operations in the US. Journal of Intelligent and Robotic Systems, 52(2), 313-329

Huang, M. and Narayanan, R. M (2011). Non-cooperative collision avoidance concept for

Unmanned Aircraft System using satellite-based radar and radio communication. Digital Avionics Systems Conference.

Luxhoj, J. T. and Oztekin, A. (2009). A Regulatory-Based Approach to Safety Analysis of

Unmanned Aircraft Systems. Engineering Psychology and Cognitive Ergonomics, (539), 564-573.

Rango, A. and Laliberte, A. S. (2010). Impact of flight regulations on effective use of unmanned

aircraft systems for natural resources applications. Journal of Applied Remote Sensing, 4(1), 043359

Watts, A. C., Ambrosia, V. G. and Hinkley, E. A. (2012). Unmanned Aircraft Systems in

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