Although unmanned air vehicles are entering their second decade of widespread operation with militaries worldwide, the civil arena has yet to completely embrace them. Operating UAVs in US civil airspace requires an extraordinary amount of regulatory co-operation, including a Federal Aviation Administration certificate of authorisation (COA) that precisely defines the timing, routing and operations, and sometimes requires chase aircraft or dedicated air traffic controllers. So far, operators have coped with the issue largely by trying to get around it. Non-military UAV operations have gravitated towards military airspace, as the vehicles need unrestricted airspace to fly in without a COA.
Oklahoma, which like several other states is marketing itself as a UAV testing ground, depends on the US Army for airspace. Manufacturers including Aurora, Northrop Grumman and L-3 are offering optionally crewed aircraft, sacrificing significant payload and endurance to avoid the COA approval process to transit through civil airspace. The demand for such aircraft has been limited, and customers few. It is up to the regulatory authorities to decide whether that market should exist at all.
"Where the FAA really comes into play is when you launch from an airfield and you have to transit to get to a restricted area - and then it'll require a COA," says ex-FAA administrator Bobby Sturgell. "It'll need things like a chase aircraft, within line of site of the ground, a certain tracking capability, maybe even time restrictions, until it hits restricted airspace."
Regulatory agencies are rarely among the early adopters of any new technology, and the FAA has taken its share of criticism for moving slowly in introducing UAVs into the national airspace. Perhaps that is why Congress slipped a pair of crucial clauses into the latest FAA reauthorisation bill, such as that which states the FAA is now legally required to come up with a plan to integrate UAVs by September 2015. Also crucial are the six test sites that must be set up around the USA. While the parameters and limitations have yet to be defined, the six sites will allow UAVs to operate with relative freedom, and the data used to address airspace integration at large.
"The two hardest areas are a certified, reliable datalink and the other one is sense-and-avoid standard. I think you also have to think from a regulator's perspective," says Sturgell. "When that standard was established, way, way back, no one had thought of unmanned aircraft or the capability we would have today. From a regulator's perspective, you're going to have to think a little bit differently than having the ability to have a person look out and see another aircraft."
The Centre of Excellence for Drones is a small operations centre, with a hangar and an administrative office, at Alma airport in rural Quebec. Although it has ties to local universities and a few smaller companies, its largest customers by far are Canadian training and simulation behemoth CAE and associated companies.
CAE is testing what it hopes will become the world's first civil UAV service. Operating an Aeronautics Dominator - a medium-altitude long endurance (MALE) modified from a civil Diamond DA-42 - it commenced flights in restricted airspace in March.
"By the time the airspace opens, you want to be ready that day," says Martin Daigle, manager of business development at CAE's military division.
The aircraft is allowed to fly under a blanket special flight operations certificate, which requires the aircraft to maintain a tight semicircle of airspace for take-off, approach and landing. The aircraft must climb and descend within a small, designated area to 12,000ft (3,660m), where the airspace is positively controlled, and maintain a given altitude and course until it reaches military airspace normally reserved for Boeing F/A-18s from the Canadian Forces Base at Bagotville. Within military airspace the aircraft is allowed to operate essentially unrestricted up to 31,000ft, above which are major commercial routes connecting northeast USA to Europe.
In any case, the aircraft is restricted to operations within line-of-sight of the ground control station, about 200km (108nm). CAE hopes the aircraft will eventually be allowed to use ground-based repeaters or space-based satellites for control.
To take off, Transport Canada must issue a notice to airmen for each operation, largely because of the 1,500lb (680kg) concrete block that is chained directly beside the middle of the runway before each flight and removed by forklift shortly after landing.
It is behind this barrier - and, in the winter, within a shack - that the external pilots control the aircraft on take-off and landing. The external and internal pilots, who control the aircraft outside the approach pattern, are employees of Aeronautics.
External pilots control take-off and landing
Although the external pilot controls the aircraft, the remote control provides no information on the aircraft, so the internal pilots supply a constant feedback of airspeed, altitude, course and distance from the airfield.
The Aeronautics Dominator has payload and endurance approaching those of General Atomics' Predator series. While the Miskam, as the Dominator has been renamed for CAE's operations, carries a single payload - namely the Controp DSP-1 EO/IR turret that comes as standard - the aircraft has the capacity and electricity to operate multiple payloads. Experiments using a small, nose-mounted magnetic anomaly detector are approaching flight tests. CAE hopes this capability will prove attractive to mining firms, which use similar equipment to search for metal deposits.
Today, the Miskam carries a single payload
"We're talking about firefighters, maritime patrol, mining, oil and gas, infrastructure visibility. What we looked at as not an artificial market that's unachievable," says Daigle. "We have the opportunity to look at markets we believe exist in the very short term, even using special operating certificates."
Alma, Quebec, where the aircraft is based, is within driving distance of Montreal - which is the location of CAE's headquarters and a major airport - but remote enough that any incident is very unlikely to cause real problems on the ground. The regional economy is based around industries that require regular, intensive aerial monitoring, and CAE is targeting them squarely.
Hydropower providers must regularly inspect lines deep in woods. Mining companies could use the magnetic anomaly detector boom to search for new deposits. Emergency services run by the provincial government involve overflight of remote areas in search of fires, missing people and wildlife. Oil and gas companies need pipelines inspected on the land, and regular reports on ice floes that threaten offshore platforms. The Canadian border-patrol agencies are interested in the aircraft to monitor the newly opened Northwest Passage, a mission requiring long flights and remote basing, ideal for MALE UAVs.
"If you ask to operate in Iqaluit, where there is five elk and two natives, I don't foresee a problem from Transport Canada," says Daigle. "They'll say, 'Yeah, go. If you crash, try to do it deep in the ocean.'"
CAE sees the nascent Alma operation as a pilot programme. The company hopes to offer similar services anywhere in the world once it is approved. In addition to civil markets, the company says that several nations have expressed interest in a possible UAV training programme.
LACK OF CLIENTS
"For commercial purposes, you really have to create an added value offering to what's already out there," he says. "Flying a sensor in the airspace... any other aircraft and camera will do it. It's really to leverage the added value of the UAV, and that's where it got into range, persistence and ability to optimise the sensor output."
CAE says the Miskam programme is suitable for a year's operation, but may not last much longer without a customer. While many parties have expressed an interest, none has signed on as a client. Without the promise of revenue, the ambitious experiment may fold.
"A significant UAV operation doesn't come cheap, so you need to make it at a global scale to make it commercially viable, and that's one of the exercises we're doing," says Daigle. "We're not doing it just for show. I have to report to those board investors that are actually putting money into this, so it's got to be making money at one point."
Outside North America, governments have been slower to permit UAVs into civil airspace, but change is coming slowly. The UK government set aside a new chunk of airspace specifically for civil UAV operations in Wales, though this has mainly benefited defence companies hoping to test military equipment outside a military airfield. Airspace in the UK and Europe is more crowded than in North America, of course, and the respective government have taken a wait-and-see approach to UAVs.
"The way I see this playing out is there will be several categories of UAS, and every category will have its own certifications and limitations," says Sturgell. "And I think you can equate this to what the FAA does with typical aircraft... I think you'll see less certification requirements, just like you see less with experimental aircraft. The way you cover it is by sticking more operational requirements on the platform."
While the Congressional mandate requires integration of UAVs, what it passed into law is open to broad interpretation. The FAA has chosen to start with the smallest drones, under 50kg. In some ways the smaller aircraft are a less useful commodity than larger ones - due to payload restrictions, they cannot carry some of the equipment required to communicate with other aircraft, or sense-and-avoid equipment, as larger MALEs can. They do, however, have the benefits of low kinetic energy, so the likelihood of catastrophe is far removed, no matter where the aircraft may crash. Smaller aircraft are also preferred by federal and local governments, particularly law-enforcement agencies, which have become among the first adopters despite the restrictions.
Of course, the technical issues are only a secondary problem. Resistance to allowing UAVs to operate widely is strong, driven largely by pilots who fear collisions and a public unwilling to permit easier surveillance.
"It's as much a public communications problem as it is a standards and certification problem," says Sturgell. "The industry and regulatory agencies need to work closer together, need to communicate constantly, and need to brainstorm solutions... I think in areas where people are operating them it will be appropriate to talk to the public about them."