Unmanned Future
2013-11-07 11:45:21
by Elan Head

On Aug. 17, 2013, a hunter allowed an illegal campfire to escape on the Stanislaus National Forest in Northern California — the beginning of what would become the Rim Fire. Within a matter of days, the fire had burned through more than 100,000 acres (40,470 hectares), encroaching into one of the United States’ most iconic natural preserves, Yosemite National Park. Local communities were evacuated. Officials estimated that more than 4,000 structures were threatened by the blaze, including facilities responsible for supplying water and power to the city of San Francisco.

Confronted with this high-profile developing mega-fire, Incident Commander Mike Wilkins made an unusual request. In addition to the manned airplanes and helicopters that are typically deployed on a wildfire of this size, he asked for support in the form of a General Atomics MQ-1 Predator — a remotely piloted aircraft that is strongly associated in the public mind with targeted killings of suspected terrorists (and, frankly, not much else). Approval of Wilkins’ request wasn’t straightforward: it required the blessing of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, as well as an emergency certificate of authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Nevertheless, by Aug. 28, a Predator operated by the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing of the California Air National Guard was flying above the Rim Fire for approximately 20 hours per day, transmitting real-time electro-optic and infra-red (EO/IR) video that proved invaluable to fire managers on the ground.

“In the first 30 to 45 minutes [of viewing Predator video feed], I saw more of the fire than I had in four days of hiking it,” Cal Fire Capt. Jeremy Salizonni told Vertical on Sept. 1, a few days into his embed with the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing at March Air Reserve Base near Riverside, Calif. According to Salizonni, Predator video feed allowed ground crews to identify and act on spot fires in minutes rather than hours, containing them before they had the opportunity to spread. The video also enhanced the safety of those ground crews, by keeping real-time tabs on their positions relative to the fire’s progress. “I don’t think we've even scratched the surface of its capabilities for public safety,” Salizonni said of the Predator, predicting a greater role for remotely piloted aircraft in wildland firefighting efforts to come.

The Rim Fire marked the first sustained use of a remotely piloted aircraft in wildland firefighting efforts in the continental U.S., but, as Salizonni indicated, it almost certainly will not be the last. The aviation industry is poised on the brink of an unmanned revolution; only a handful of significant technological and regulatory obstacles are holding back a flood of potential applications for unmanned aircraft. Events like the Predator’s use on the Rim Fire are chinks in that dam, and an opportunity to start thinking about how unmanned aircraft will complement and compete with their manned counterparts. Although few people doubt that there will be roles for manned aircraft for many years to come, it does seem likely that the aviation industry — and, in particular, the helicopter industry — as we know it is on its way out.

A Drone by Any Other Name

First, a word on terminology. An aircraft that does not require a human pilot on board might be described as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or an unmanned aerial system (UAS). Different unmanned aircraft types may be remotely controlled or largely autonomous; when it comes to the Predator, 163rd Reconnaissance Wing Col. Dana Hessheimer prefers the term remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) to emphasize that its operations are under positive human control. An aircraft that can fly with or without a human pilot on board is an optionally piloted vehicle (OPV). There are further marketing variations on these terms, such as Kaman’s unmanned aerial truck (UAT). The one descriptive term that the industry unanimously rejects is “drone” — which, of course, is how unmanned aircraft are referred to in virtually every mainstream media report on the subject.

Drones have a bad reputation. Although a variety of unmanned platforms have served intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance functions in recent armed conflicts, most of these uses have gone unremarked. Instead, public attention has focused on armed drones such as the Predator and General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, which in recent years have been used by the United States for targeted killings in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. 

Depending on whom you talk to, the use of drones is either an essential tool in the war on terror, or a violation of sovereignty and the rule of law that has deepened hostility against the U.S. It’s hard to think of “drones” without reference to these political dimensions, which is why the unmanned vehicle industry continues to push for more neutral descriptions and acronyms.

Almost 20 years after the Predator made its first flight (in July 1994), the military use of UAVs is well established. A recent Teal Group report estimated that annual global spending on UAVs is $5.2 billion, almost all of which is military spending. According to the report, UAVs have been the most dynamic growth sector of the aerospace industry this decade. Moreover, the trend shows no signs of slowing down: Teal Group estimates that annual global spending on UAVs will more than double by 2023, to $11.6 billion. While that figure reflects increased investment in civil UAVs, the vast majority of the total amount will continue to represent military spending.

Military UAVs come in all shapes and sizes, fixed-wing and rotary-wing. While many UAVs have no manned analogue, several conventional helicopter platforms have found success as military UAVs, including the Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout operated by the U.S. Navy, and the Kaman Unmanned K-Max deployed by the U.S. Marine Corps. There have been several variants of the Fire Scout: an initial RQ-8A version based on the Schweizer 330; an enhanced MQ-8B based on the Schweizer 333; and the new MQ-8C, which is being developed on a Bell 407 platform. Collectively, the Fire Scout fleet has provided more than 10,000 hours of intelligence-gathering support for naval and ground forces, including more than 5,000 hours in Afghanistan. The Unmanned K-Max, known within the USMC as the Cargo Resupply UAS (CRUAS), is a joint venture between Kaman and Lockheed Martin based on Kaman’s utility K-Max helicopter. The CRUAS program accumulated more than 1,500 flight hours delivering cargo to forward operating bases in Afghanistan before a prototype aircraft crashed on June 6 of this year, triggering a mishap board investigation. In mid-August, the Marines released video showing Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1 practicing landing another prototype CRUAS in Afghanistan, “to maintain proper technique and decrease mishaps.”

Obstacles, Physical and Political

There are several reasons why UAVs have gained traction in the defense sector well ahead of the civilian world. One is plentiful funding: the same reason why many manned aviation technologies also find their start through government contracts. But militaries also have the luxury of operating UAVs in restricted airspace and combat zones — highly controlled areas in which conflicts with other aircraft aren’t a concern. When it comes to civilian airspace, the situation is trickier: manned aircraft operators are, understandably, concerned about sharing the sky with aircraft that may not be capable of taking evasive action in time to avoid a collision.

In the absence of a reliable collision-avoidance capability, UAV operations within civilian airspace have generally been limited to low-altitude operations within sight of a ground operator, or flights in the company of manned escort aircraft (as was the case for the Predator when it was transiting between March Air Reserve Base and the Rim Fire). At the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) trade show in Washington, D.C. in August, Gerald Sayer of GL International described this collision-avoidance capability as “the missing Holy Grail” for the UAV community. “We need a certifiable sense-and-avoid system,” he said, describing its absence as a key barrier to civilian UAV integration.

In fact, the industry is making considerable progress towards developing sense-and-avoid systems, through cooperative efforts such as the Sense and Avoid Research Panel (SARP), chartered through the U.S. Department of Defense in February 2011. The goal of SARP is to identify common research gaps and promote partnerships between sense-and-avoid researchers; according to Stephen Cook of MITRE, “We’re getting smarter through this process . . . . and we’re also making progress.” Researchers have already had considerable success using ADS-B in sense-and-avoid applications, although ultimately UAVs will also need to be able to avoid collisions with aircraft that are not currently equipped with ADS-B or transponders, such as paragliders. And they will need to be able to do so consistently. At AUVSI, Dennis Coulter of Modern Technology Solutions noted that while the “see-and-avoid” approach to collision avoidance relies on prescriptive, qualitative requirements, UAVs will need to demonstrate sense-and-avoid capability with quantitative certainty. “With a pilot, you give him the training he needs; you make sure his eyes are good,” Coulter said, noting that the accident record indicates that this approach is far from perfect. With UAVs, he said, “There will always be a need to show a level of safety that isn’t always demanded in the manned environment.”

Developing a reliable sense-and-avoid capability is a primary technological stumbling block toward civilian UAV integration (others include ensuring uninterrupted command and control systems, and safeguarding against GPS jamming and spoofing). But there are also political hurdles: namely, privacy concerns that have only intensified with revelations of massive surveillance activities by the U.S. government. Although the U.S. Congress directed the FAA in 2012 to develop rules for UAV integration into the National Airspace System no later than Dec. 31, 2015, pushback from states and citizens has caused Congress to reconsider, granting that existing laws to protect privacy may not be adequate given the rapid advancement of UAV technology. “As the FAA looks to integrate UAS into the national airspace, a more comprehensive approach to privacy may be warranted,” the Senate Committee on Appropriations wrote in a June 2013 report. It recommended that the FAA be required to evaluate the impact that broader use of UAVs in the national airspace could have on individual privacy, and to submit a report on the matter to Congress, before issuing any final regulations on UAV operation and certification.

Privacy concerns over UAVs are multifaceted. In the private sphere, there are worries that private operators will use small UAVs to spy on their neighbors and business competitors. The more prevalent fear is that “Big Brother” governments will use UAVs to spy on citizens in newly intrusive ways. In fact, UAVs are already in operation by multiple law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and Canada, who deploy them in ways that are often similar to the deployment of manned surveillance aircraft. U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses UAVs extensively, and, according to a July 2013 letter from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to U.S. Senator Rand Paul, the FBI  “uses UAVs in very limited circumstances to conduct surveillance when there is a specific, operational need.” The letter indicated that the FBI has only used unmanned aerial surveillance in 10 cases since 2006, each of which has been reviewed by legal counsel to satisfy Fourth Amendment prohibitions against unreasonable searches and seizures. “The FBI does not, and has no plans to use UAVs to conduct general surveillance not related to a specific investigation or assessment,” the letter states. 

Nevertheless, public distrust of and hostility toward UAVs remains widespread. This was underscored in June, when the town of Deer Town, Colo., proposed an ordinance that would offer $100 bounty rewards for shooters who brought in debris from unmanned aircraft belonging to the U.S. government. Although the proposed ordinance was understood to be mostly symbolic, the FAA was forced to issue a statement clarifying that it is neither safe nor legal to shoot down air vehicles, even unmanned ones.

Pilots Optional

Clearly, integration of UAVs into civilian airspace systems won’t happen overnight. The technological and political obstacles aren’t insurmountable, however, and both private companies and government agencies are committed to overcoming them — not least because the potential economic impact of UAV integration is huge (more than $13.6 billion in the first three years of integration in the U.S. alone, according to an estimate in AUVSI’s 2013 economic impact report). Given that widespread use of civilian UAVs is all but inevitable, what will this unmanned future look like? And, more to the point for Vertical readers, what will it mean for the future of the manned helicopter industry?

UAVs have already been widely employed in public safety and commercial applications around the world, not always with appropriate authorization. In Canada, UAV operators must receive a Special Flight Operation Certificate from Transport Canada for each flight, which requires a detailed plan for how the operation will be conducted. Provided each operation meets Transport Canada’s safety standards, commercial applications are permitted. In the U.S., the FAA requires that public UAV operators, such as law enforcement agencies and academic institutions, receive a certificate of authorization (COA), while private operators must apply for a special airworthiness certificate in the experimental category. Both come with operational restrictions intended to mitigate conflicts with other aircraft, and neither permit commercial use. According to the Government Accountability Office, the FAA has issued at least 1,428 certificates of authorization since 2007, many of these to the same relatively small number of public safety operators and academic researchers. However, because regulations for UAVs are so underdeveloped, some entrepreneurs in the U.S., either willfully or inadvertently, have chosen to operate UAVs in commercial applications under the guidance established for remote-controlled aircraft.

This summer, the FAA achieved a major milestone when it established an Other Transaction Agreement with ConocoPhillips for use of an Insitu ScanEagle for marine mammal and ice surveys in the Chukchi Sea, off the northwest coast of Alaska. This was the first authorized small UAV commercial operation in the United States, and some manufacturers — who have been waiting years to bring their UAVs to the commercial market — resented that the first approval went to Insitu, a wholly owned subsidiary of the aerospace giant Boeing. Nevertheless, most recognized it as an important step towards broader integration of UAVs in civilian airspace.

The potential uses of UAVs are many and varied, although as the bounty-hunting residents of Deer Town, Colo., appreciate, UAVs equipped with cameras are particularly effective when employed for aerial surveillance. In a law enforcement role, UAVs equipped with state-of-the-art EO/IR cameras could be tasked for many of the covert surveillance missions currently performed by manned airplanes and helicopters, while small rotary-wing UAVs could provide unprecedented, close-in surveillance during SWAT and other tactical operations. The Rim Fire provided a compelling example of how UAVs can provide vital surveillance during natural disasters, including surveillance in conditions — such as heavy smoke — that are prohibitive to manned aircraft. Other operators are using camera-equipped UAVs to conduct wildlife surveys, earth science research and aerial cinematography. As Tom Hallman, president of the cinematography company Pictorvision Inc. put it, “UAVs are just another way to get a camera or any other payload into an interesting position.”

UAVs also have tremendous potential for such missions as pipeline and powerline monitoring, agricultural application, and cargo transport — all missions currently being performed by manned helicopters. One thing they probably won’t be used for, however, is beer, taco, or pizza delivery, no matter what you hear about in the popular media. Aviation analyst Darryl Jenkins, a co-author of the AUVSI economic impact report, pointed out at the organization’s trade show in August that insurance companies are likely to place significant constraints on unmanned aircraft use, just as they do with manned aircraft. “Insurance will be the 800-pound gorilla,” he told attendees. “It will determine which segments grow and which segments die.” It is unlikely that insurance companies would incur the risk of covering the use of UAVs for pizza delivery in heavily populated areas, given the high probability of accidents and potential for large payouts. On the other hand, he said, “we can get insurance for uses in non-populated areas as the risk for a mishap is low and any expected payout is small.”

Not only should UAV operators keep these points in mind, so, too, should manned aircraft operators as the industry moves towards greater UAV integration. The AUVSI report predicts that “as UAS are introduced, some uses will replace existing capabilities, because there are efficiencies to be gained by using a UAS versus a traditional capability. As such, there is likely to be some job destruction from UAS.” The manned helicopter operators who survive in this new environment will be those who offer a service that UAVs can’t yet replace, whether that’s the ability to operate in highly populated or technically demanding environments, or simply the reassurance of a pilot up front during passenger transport missions. On the bright side, according to the AUVSI report, “UAS will still need many similar capabilities to manned systems including training, maintenance and pilots. Any jobs that will be made immaterial by UAS will be transitioned to regular UAS operations.”

That may be small consolation to pilots who were drawn to aviation for the thrill of flight, not a paycheck. Nevertheless, that’s the reality that many people are preparing for. Missy Cummings — an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Duke University who was one of the U.S. Navy’s first female fighter pilots — is one of the researchers who suspect that the era of the fighter pilot (and, by extension, many other pilots) is nearing its end. “I’m glad I got to do it,” she told AUVSI attendees in August. “But I’m one of the last.” 

Alex Wilson-Thomas contributed to this report.

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