The FAA says that it has experienced a marked slowdown in requests for experimental airworthiness certification for UAVs, with just three applications now pending and only two active certificates.

The head of the FAA's Air-160 unmanned aircraft programme office Doug Davis says the slowdown is being seen as evidence of an absence of aviation culture within the UAV development community.

Speaking 8 November at the Unmanned Vehicle Systems Canada conference in Montebello, Quebec, he said “When we first started doing this about 15-16 months ago there were some indications that there would be a significant bow wave and we would be inundated with requests for airworthiness certificates under the experimental category. That just hasn’t materialised. We have three more in the queue waiting to be reviewed.”

The only two current certificates out of four issued since mid 2005 are held by the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Altair, pictured below, and Raytheon’s Cobra.


GA-ASI Altair

Davis says further maturation of the UAV sector is required before application rates are likely to reach original forecasts: “What we are finding is that industry is not there yet. Industry isn’t ready for this because one of the big ticket items that we request going through the experimental airworthiness certificate process is a safety assessment - a risk analysis - of what your system is going to do to the airspace that you want to fly in. What are the risks of doing that?

“What we have found are two things. One is that in the unmanned aircraft community we are seeing a lot of companies that have not been traditional aircraft manufacturers, and because of that they are learning the game still and they need a lot of help in learning that game in terms of how compliance is required.

“The second thing is that, because of the hyperactivity around the [Iraq] war with the development of unmanned aircraft, we have to make sure that the proper engineering design is placed on some critical items like lost link and flight termination and those kinds of things so that we can protect airspace.”

The Altair certificate was first issued in September 2005 and was reissued in September this year. The FAA counts this as two certificates.

Cobra is the first tactical class UAV to secure a certificate, this issued in late October, supporting flight operations in south-eastern Arizona.

A certificate issued for the Bell Helicopter TR918 Eagle Eye tilt-rotor UAV on 1 December 2005 was surrendered by that company in April after a crash at Bell’s flight-test centre near Fort Worth, Texas.

In April this year FAA associate administrator for aviation safety Nick Sabatini told US Congressional hearings that 14 applications for experimental certificates had been received since the initiative commenced. The latest figures indicate that at least half those applicants have dropped their requests in recent months.