New Years Eve came and went without the US Federal Aviation Administration publishing a set of rules governing the operation of unmanned air vehicles within the national airspace. It would be the first step toward opening US skies to commercial application of small UAVs.
Though the FAA has delayed publishing its rules for small UAVs, it has begun to relax regulations for certain applications on a case-by-case basis. It awarded in December exemptions for four US companies to fly unmanned aircraft for aerial surveying, construction site monitoring and oil rig flare stack inspections.
Previously the FAA granted exemptions for seven film studios, making them the first commercial operators of UAVs in US national airspace below the Arctic.
The FAA recently opened the door for UAV use in newsgathering when it entered a "cooperative research and development agreement" with broadcast network CNN, which already is studying the issue in cooperation with the Georgia Tech Research Institute. The FAA will collect and use the data gathered from the programme to formulate a framework for various types of UAVs to be safely integrated into newsgathering operations," according to a statement from CNN.
As the barriers to commercial operations of UAVs in US airspace slowly erode, companies like Lockheed Martin are turning their focus from the military UAV market, which is shrinking as the US draws down from Afghanistan, to the commercial and civil application of unmanned systems. Lockheed in the past several years bought up several smaller UAV manufacturers to pad its portfolio of tactical UAVs – those that are relatively inexpensive, hand-launched and easily recoverable.
Those platforms, which the military classifies as “Group 1”, that are most readily configurable to perform non-military missions, says Jay McConville, Lockheed’s director of business development for unmanned solutions.
“We see market growth coming in civil and commercial, as well as a continuing robust military market, both US and internationally,” he says. “I think there is still a robust military market. Everybody around the world saw how valuable these assets were to our forces and everybody wants them now. You enter military equipment into the force when you have the opportunity to do so, not just in conflict.
“On the commercial side, there is a great thirst for UAVs for precision agriculture,” McConville adds. “Law enforcement, firefighting, pipeline monitoring, these are new markets that have seized on this capability.”
Lockheed’s Indago quadcopter already is used more by law enforcement and first-responders than by military personnel. The 2.3kg (5.07lb), 32.2in aircraft has a 55min maximum endurance, and a range of up to 10km (6.2 miles), an impressive resume for such a small UAV.
The Indago also has been teamed with large UAVs like the K-MAX unmanned helicopter. In a November demonstration the smaller UAV was used as a spotter for the K-MAX, which then targeted and doused a fire with a load of water.
K-MAX already has proven its military utility delivering 4.5 million pounds of cargo autonomously to forward operating bases in Afghanistan, where two aircraft flew 1900 day an d night resupply missions.
“While this is an incredible military capability for logistics, we are getting a lot of attention on K-MAX for other uses,” McConville says. “The aircraft is adaptable to multiple missions in the civil and commercial space,” he says. “Delivery of cargo for civil and commercial purposes is an obvious one, but firefighting, first responding, disaster recovery and relief operations” all are possibilities.
Other platforms initially designed for military missions that can readily transition to civilian uses are the Desert Hawk fixed wing aircraft, which has flown more than 30,000hr in combat with the UK military and the Stalker, which also is hand launched and can provide target-quality imagery at long range and high altitudes.Both platforms were acquired by Lockheed when it bought Chandler/May, which had previously acquired UAV manufacturers Aeromech Engineering and AME Unmanned Systems.
The newest addition to Lockheed’s small UAV portfolio, the Vector Hawk, can be deployed in multiple configurations for various missions. It can be operated as a fixed-wing aircraft, a quadcopter, a tiltrotor or outfitted with an expandable wing and launched from a tube. The aircraft has a maximum endurance of 90min and a 17,000ft ceiling.
As sensors improve and shrink, capabilities normally associated with large platforms like the General Atomics Aeronautics Systems MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, are finding their way into smaller, more affordable, easier to operate aircraft. Lockheed is pitching its 5.18m-wingspan Fury flying wing as such an aircraft. The Fury can be launched by catapult and caught in a net, which does not require a runway. It also sports a large system-agnostic payload bay and has up to 16hr of endurance.
“That kind of capability has normally only been available in the largest most expensive strategic systems,” he says. “With Fury, we’re able to demonstrate it in a non-runway dependent aircraft.”
With the acquisition of companies like Chandler/May, Lockheed began development of common ground control systems that would allow most of its Group 1 UAVs to be flown by civilians with very little training. The company is developing software that can be upgraded with any features required by the eventual FAA unmanned aircraft regulations.