For unmanned air systems makers looking to exploit a latent US civil market, technical hurdles are increasingly the least challenging aspect of establishing a viable business.
As the US Federal Aviation Administration noted in its November 2013 road map to integrating unmanned air vehicles into civil airspace, “rulemaking efforts may be more complex, receive greater scrutiny and require longer development timeframes than the average regulatory effort”.
Obstacles to integration include the absence of a certification regime and the FAA worries about “cockpit” security. The FAA reckons that certification standards could be in place in 2015, but it does not foresee acceptable autonomous sense-and-avoid technology – needed to allow operations beyond line-of-sight – any sooner than five to 10 years.
How much the industry can do to help the FAA achieve its Congressionally-mandated mission to open US skies to UAVs remains to be seen, but one company thinks it has found a valuable ally: the state of North Carolina. According to Olaeris founder and chief executive Ted Lindsley, the state is at least a year ahead of any others in establishing a regulatory framework that might serve as a model for a nationwide airspace system.
So, after talks with 18 other states, Olaeris has now chosen North Carolina to establish its headquarters and production centre for “Aeva”, a six-rotor flying saucer-shaped system it unveiled a year ago. The system - which operates from a recharging base station, has swarm ability and can be airborne in 90s - is designed to provide emergency response teams with a fully automated, early arrival eye-in-the-sky capability. Nominally based in Denver and Dallas – or even Bangkok, where Lindsley hangs his hat to be close to electronics and other suppliers – Olaeris is hopeful that it could be the seed for a “Silicon Valley for robotics” in the state’s central western Piedmont region, somewhere in the Raleigh-Greensboro-Charlotte triangle.
His talk of attracting “hundreds of start-up companies” around Olaeris to “generate billions of dollars across multiple industries as the technology advances” is certainly optimistic, although he says one “key” electronics supplier is interested in coming in. Another ally is the North Carolina State University’s NextGen Air Transportation Center.
Ultimately, there is no US market for unmanned systems without FAA regulation. Lindsley expects a step-by-step regulatory acceptance of UAVs, which is why he sees state-level enthusiasm for the technology to be so critical. Not surprisingly, he reckons the first approved civil uses will be for emergency services, on the reasonable expectation that, being run by state and county agencies, these are more likely than private operators to engender trust in the FAA. Uses such as power line or pipeline inspection may come next, he says, as regulators gradually accept operations beyond the operator’s line of sight.
There is, of course, one other hurdle to UAV use in domestic airspace. Olaeris goes to great pains to stress that its founding concept was to develop Aeva for purely civil applications, and Lindsley says he avoids talking to the media if he senses a “fear and panic” story about “spy drones”.
So, built into the system is an arguably inspired piece of public relations. After each flight, Aeva produces a flight summary that can be published online, showing people exactly when, where, why and how the aircraft was used.