Taming of the drones

  • 08-Dec-2016 02:39 EST
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Establishing the regulatory framework for the safe operation of UAVs will help open up a massive new commercial market. Collision avoidance systems will be a key component in making this happen. (Iris Automation)

While unmanned systems are already transforming the way that modern warfighting is conducted, the commercial sector is still at the starting gate. That said, personal UAV ownership is expanding at an exponential rate, as small, stable, UAVs enter the market. This is where the greatest, potentially massive, multi-billion-dollar business potential is likely to emerge in a relatively short period. It will impact almost every aspect of life once a satisfactory operating framework can be agreed upon. The key for the UAV industry is overcoming the safety and regulatory challenges that accompany it.

The 14th Annual Unmanned Systems Canada conference and trade show, held this past November, proved to be quite a timely event. This year’s host, the Government of Alberta, has been a major player in the commercialization of UAVs, and is working alongside other federal bodies, such as Transport Canada (TC), to promote the growth of this dynamic sector and unlock the potential of much of Alberta’s airspace.

This airspace, such as the Foremost Restricted Airspace site (that rises to 18,000 ft) is suitable for test and evaluation flying and for the development of autonomous systems that will allow UAVs to operate routinely without endangering other aircraft.

In his opening address, the Chairman of the Unmanned Systems Canada Board, Mark Aruja, explained that the UAV industry in Canada has seen 1000 new businesses created during the past four years, but that this growth has brought many challenges: the single biggest issue being how to provide safe beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) capabilities. This would open an even greater accessible market (worth over $127 billion according to reports from PricewaterhouseCoopers).

Unmanned Systems Canada has just published a BVLOS Best Practices document that will potentially provide industry and regulators with a framework for gaining approvals to operate. Once a common set of standards is introduced service providers and other operators will be able to put together robust business cases to attract new investment and take schemes forward.

Progress toward new regulations

A representative from TC, Mark Wuennenberg, provided a backdrop to the current regulatory regime, stating that during the May 2014-2016 period there had been 253 UAV incidents reported, with the 2016 rate showing an increase of 180% compared to the previous year. Some 37% were considered high risk.

In the case of UAVs flying near manned aircraft, the potential impact resulting from a collision was considerable. Tests showed that a collision with a small drone was likely to produce twice the damage as with a large bird. Additionally, the onboard UAV batteries could have an explosive effect if ingested into an engine or embedded in a part of the aircraft airframe containing fuel.

The representative also stressed that it was important not to over-regulate the operation of UAVs. The intention is to allow operators of UAVs smaller than 250 g to meet the requirements and then just go and fly, while maintaining a threshold for UAVs weighing over 2 kg.

Sightings near airports in the U.S. were now running at around 100 a month, mostly at low level. TC is working with law enforcement organizations to bring prosecutions and fines for those caught infringing the rules, such as flying above 300 ft, within 5 nmi of an airport, 3 nmi of a heliport or grass strip, or over a built-up area.

A Special Flight Operating Certificate is required for exemptions and pilots intending to operate UAVs commercially need to meet basic, simple knowledge requirements and be at least 18 years of age. Operators of larger and more complex UAVs require an appropriate training and management structure.

TC is developing Standard Operating Procedure flight rules that would be presented in an operator manual. This would include restrictions on certain procedures, such as night operations. Work is well advanced on program implementation planning, which includes a registration database, UAV and system design standards, and a revised pilot exam and permit documentation. The details will be announced in mid-2017 with phased implementation expected by early 2018.

Regarding progress on regulating BVLOS operations, TC is performing trials on test ranges and a special working group is expected to publish an Advisory Circular in 2017. Challenges have included determining what a reliable sense-and-avoid system capability needs to achieve. Protected spectrums for command and control links are a consideration. The reliability of flight critical systems is an issue, including how to deal with a lost communications link and how automated flight termination behaviour would work. The interface with airport air traffic systems and performance in different weather conditions also needs to be part of the studies. International harmonization is also important, and TC is working closely with the FAA and ICAO.

Some of the key points of BVLOS certification require the applicant to have a proven track record as a safe and knowledgeable VLOS operator, to become a compliant operator, to provide evidence and/or data that mitigation measures are safe. Practical work by TC leading up to new BVLOS regulations includes virtual reality computer modelling and simulation, flight testing systems, developing centres of excellence and flights in restricted air space.

Defining a compliant infrastructure

Wuennenberg was later joined by speakers representing UAV manufacturers, (Kyle Kivimaki of Aeryon Labs), operators (Andrew Carson of Draganfly), and system developers (Chris Polowick of RME Geomatics). Wuennenberg commented that the FAA had already introduced type certification (for Boeing Insitu ScanEagle use) in a low-density environment, in daylight conditions. Transponders were needed if flying in controlled airspace, with flight plans filed, NOTAMs distributed, and flight heights restricted at 1000 ft.

Today, TC validity for multi-regional professional UAV operations covers a three-year period. The vehicle design has to be built to a compliant standard and accompanied by a Declaration of Compliance. This covers flight performance, UAV structure, design and construction, the propulsion system, systems and equipment, and documentation. Pilot Compliance includes knowledge training in accordance with TP15263 and associated testing, a self-declaration of Category 4 medical status and experience matched by proficiency.

The operator must ensure adequate management structure exists to support continued, safe operations, and this includes staff instruction with operations manuals and SOPs. Kivimaki indicated that key reasons for Aeryon deciding to pursue Design Compliant UAV status was that it allows operators to apply for Compliant Operator Status, it reinforces the company’s design, testing, manufacturing and documentation practices, defines an aviation standard that customers can reference and is a differentiator for new public safety, government and commercial contracts.

Many of the TC-developed UAS regulatory requirements focus on recommendations that have emerged from recent studies and consultations with manufacturers and operators. The UAV requirements call for reliable sense and avoid systems (SAA) and robust command and control (C2) systems, lighting systems, lost-link and termination procedures, ground and surface feature detection systems, and systems allowing for IFR flights and maintenance requirements.

In looking closer at SAA needs, this must address both separation and collision avoidance requirements and a graduated warning to pilots. Additional functions would include capability in multiple aircraft conflict scenarios and compatibility with other collision avoidance systems. In the event of lost C2 functionality there should be immediate activation of a flight termination system. This should be initiated independently or automatically and designed to avoid severe injury to persons on the ground or damage to property.

Most importantly it should interrupt the current UAV trajectory and be highly reliable. In terms of how future UAV regulation might impact on operating and flight rules, another TC working group has concluded that they must meet the same equipment requirements for visual flight rules (VFR) and instrument flight rules (IFR) as manned aircraft to access the same air space, including procedural requirements. This means they must have the same rules for radio communication requirements and compliance with air traffic control (ATC) instructions, filing flight plans, operating in weather minima, carrying reserve fuel requirements, and UAV specific requirements. BVLOS best practices are still being developed but are the consensus driven, proposed methodology for addressing BVLOS operations in Canada.

Two test ranges are soon to be active and TC believes that there is real value in developing experience and feedback and evolving it to the point where it can become routine regulation. The scope of BVLOS operations is vast and wide ranging. It extends from nearby flying such as behind a building or other obstruction to VFR low-level cross-country flights with launch and recovery from an ad-hoc site, such as a field or track, and cross-country IFR flights through control zones, possibly involving take-offs and landings at airfields. The level of documentation and justification required to achieve operating approval will be commensurate with the level of complexity of the proposed operation.

A U.S. perspective was given by Thomas Wilczek from the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development, who outlined the facilities now available in the state for testing and operating UAVs of all sizes and configurations. Designated an FAA UAS Test Site, the facility comprises permission to fly public aircraft operations in the U.S. National Airspace System up to 1200 ft, including large systems by day or night and within direct line-of-sight conditions.

As of the end of October, the Nevada UAS Test Site had logged 642 flights during 2016 and is the first to host NASA Unmanned Traffic Management flights using BVLOS scenarios. As a part of operational evaluation tests in April the first U.S. drone delivery flight was conducted to an urban area and in July the first commercial drone delivery. Other “firsts” included performing a UAV cloud seeding program, the signing of an memorandum of understanding to Ehang for testing a drone taxi and another with the Republic of Korea for drone testing.

Nevada Energy has also started using drones for power line inspections and all flight data is now collected and reported to the FAA for evaluation. The regulatory safeguards prohibit UAV flights within 500 ft of critical infrastructure (with action for civil trespass if flown at less than 250 ft) and some restrictions on law enforcement use for evidence gathering. A registry of public UAS operations has to be maintained. He added that there are also certain tax abatements allowed covering aircraft (including UAVs) manufacture, operations and maintenance.

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