Many geospatial professionals are excited about the prospects of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) integration into the national airspace in September 2015, and for good reason. In the past few months, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has called for UAV test site proposals, and experts have made bold predictions about the potential economic impact of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) on the United States.

So it was a bit surprising that an official working for the federal government would dump a bucket of cold water on that enthusiasm during an Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) webinar on April 24.

Steve Pennington, director of ranges, bases and airspace for the U.S. Air Force, said during the webinar “Airspace Integration: Progress to Date and the Challenges Still Ahead” that it’s unlikely commercial UAS will be flying in significant numbers in the U.S. by Sept. 30, 2015. There’s still too much work to do.

“Before the development of a civil-commercial market, the FAA or any other regulator has to offer worthiness standards,” Pennington said. “It has to develop pilot training and licensing standards and medical standards, and it has to develop air traffic control procedures. So, if you don’t have the last three things I talked about, you cannot have the development of the civil-commercial market. You can just use them as experimental, and that is not for-hire.”

Although the goal is for the FAA to safely integrate UAS into the national airspace by the end of September in 2015, it doesn’t mean that UAS will actually be flying commercially, Pennington said. It means that the FAA has to have a comprehensive plan, what he called “a roadmap,” in place to foster integration by that date. And even that date is tenuous.

The FAA could fall behind that congressionally imposed deadline due to sequestration, the 10 percent across-the-board budget cuts which forced furloughs of FAA employees on April 21. The cuts also reduced the amount of money the FAA has available for work from outside contractors. In addition, the integration plan could be delayed due to public concerns over the Fourth Amendment’s protections against illegal searches and seizures, as well as other personal privacy concerns. Dozens of bills have been proposed curtailing UAS integration in state legislatures across the country.

However, Pennington remains hopeful that the rules for small UAS integration – of which the geospatial profession will likely play a predominant role – will be out by then. In order for that to happen, he sees two significant technological hurdles: remote sensing of other aircraft to avoid collisions and maintaining a secure communications line from the operator on the ground to the UAS in the air.

He expects that small UAS with line-of-sight operations, such as those that will be used for remote sensing in precision agriculture deployments, will be the most common UAS in the air upon integration.

“They’re going to be the easier one. I think small UAS, below 400 feet (in altitude), line-of-sight (operations), once the rule comes out, off they’ll go,” he said. “The harder question for small UAS is above 400 feet, at night and beyond line-of-sight. That’s going to take some work.”

Larger aircraft, such as those currently used for military purposes, will also be easiest to integrate, Pennington said. The reason is that they have flight controls developed and manufactured almost like manned aircraft, along with trained and cleared personnel to operate the aircraft. Large UAS are receiving the highest priority for integration into the national airspace.

The aircraft standards organization Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) has instituted a revised approach to developing Minimum Operational Performance Requirements for UAS, according to a report in the aviation journal AINonline. Special Committee 228 will be tasked with delivering rules every 12 to 24 months, Pennington said. Its first task is to examine sense-and-avoid technology and develop standards for protection of the communication spectrum for those large aircraft. Once that’s complete, the committee will shift its focus to small UAS, Pennington said.

Jeff Lovin, senior vice president and director of geospatial services at Woolpert, said that commercial use of UAS should be a priority. Woolpert, a design, engineering and geospatial firm in Dayton, Ohio, recently purchased its first UAS to collect 3D mapping data as well as thermal, infrared and high-definition imagery, which can be delivered in real time.

“It’s troubling to see this great technology that’s starting to take off so quickly and yet the private sector has to sit on the sidelines,” he said. “That’s troubling and worrying. I’ll stay optimistic that they’ll have everything solved and ready to go by 2015.”

The Defense Department, NASA and the Department of Homeland Security will lend its expertise to the RTCA and the FAA to help develop standards for certification, training and air traffic control procedures, Pennington said. The Defense Department is also updating its handbook of regulations for UAS flight in U.S. airspace.

“In our case, we’re going to engage with our friends and partners in the FAA,” Pennington said of the Defense Department. “We’re going to work day in and day out with industry and academia, because all of us have a part in moving this nation forward.”