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AUVSI: Growth of small UAV industry could raise new regulatory challenges

The proliferation of potential missions for small unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) in recent years has surprised even industry members and may be catching regulators off guard.

“The unexpected level of demand for commercial applications [has come] a lot earlier than anybody expected,” says Michael Francis, head of advanced programs at United Technologies Research Center, speaking at AUVSI’s annual conference on 12 May.

The pace of emerging UAV applications is likely “a lot more than the FAA initially expected as well,” Francis adds.

Francis says that in 2007, attendees to a symposium focused on civilian UAV applications looked at the aircraft “through the lens” of military models like the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator and Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk.

“Nobody saw the quadcopter coming… Nobody saw the easy-to-fly-machine coming” so soon, he says.

Rapid technological advances pose continued challenges to regulators tasked with writing UAV certification requirements, Francis adds.

In the coming years, UAVs will likely begin employing “intelligence software” that can learn from past experiences and make mission-level decisions.

“These are the things that are happening in laboratories [and]…in robotics classrooms today,” he says. By comparison, today’s computers primarily handle “physical functions” like travelling to a waypoint, says Francis.

Future regulations will need to keep pace with software that increasingly mimics the role of today’s pilots, he adds. “The ability to certify that kind of software is far more like certifying the crew than… [the] airplane,” Francis says.

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