Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are flying longer and sensors are getting better, says Blaine Horner, Precision Hawk.  Just a year ago, he noted in a presentation to attendees at the MAPPS summer conference, users were flying about 15 to 20 minutes with smaller cameras, now they are able to fly up to about an hour with better cameras and sensors.  At eight meters per second, drone flights can cover two square miles versus the 300 acres with the shorter flying times.  That makes a difference, Horner says, especially with the number of take offs and landings the amount of recalibration necessary to bring the data together.  

He likens the process of planning drone operations to a math problem.  With a weight limit of 55 pounds, the user is working backwards to find out how big the sensor can be.  Starting by subtracting the airframe weight and batteries, the remaining weight allowance is divided among the sensors.  The issue, he points out, is not the capacity of the UAV, it is regulatory.

Dependability Matters

One important factor Horner stresses when it comes to the aircraft is reliability.  “Dependability matters when you are flying a $200,000 system on a $20,000 drone,” he points out.  The smaller drones tend to be more dependable, he notes, because they are mass produced to a set of engineered specifications.  While he doesn’t disparage the medium-sized drones, he says they do tend to be more of a custom build.

Sensors are big issue, Horner continues.  They are limited by the small payload capacity of the UAV, so you will have to process with a lot of noise.  Short flight durations necessitated by the limited battery capacity for flying and powering all of the onboard technology can also lead to significant variances in lighting, for instance, when flights might stretch over a couple of days.

As cameras improve and start to move more towards medium format and large format, it will be a boon for the quality of the data, he continues.  Hyperspectral sensors are another area to watch.  They provide massive amounts of data with 2 cm pixels and 170 bands stacked, he notes.  “You fly 15 acres and you have 1.5 terrabytes of data.”

LiDAR is where UAS is competing and producing really good products, says Horner.  “You are flying so low and slow that you get lots of side-point strikes.”  A good inertial measurement unit (IMU) makes a difference.  A high quality laser with a high quality IMU will equal good data, he comments.

One factor that will have to be overcome is what Horner refers to as the “drone halo.”  There is an attitude that drones can solve everything.  In fact, as he has pointed out in his comments, there is still much to be done with the technology and the regulations to tap the full potential UAVs can offer.

Extended Line of Sight

One issue the drone-flying community has wrestled with is the visual-line-of-sight rule.  FAA prohibits operating a UAV beyond the visual line of sight of the remote pilot.  There are options for waivers, but perhaps the more promising area is what is being referred to as extended visual line of sight.

The Pathfinder Program had as one of its goals identifying the terms and distances of how much airspace one person can maintain.  The conclusion was about three miles.  Moving forward, the Pathfinder programs took into account ground and other distractions and then looked at assistive technologies to identify other aircraft.

Perhaps the topic that raises the most controversy is the discussion of remote ID tracking.  This would be similar to the transponders in most commercial aircraft.  The goal is “access to airspace like any other manned aircraft,” says Peter McNall, General Atomics.  In this, he suggests UAVs have transponders and a [certified] pilot.  One of the problems is with type certification for aircraft.  The process for type certification is not much different for a Boeing 737 and can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, he says.  He suggests minimum performance standards both for navigation and for manufacturing.

Foreshadowing the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization bill, McNall points out pilot certification will mature with the proliferation of UAVs.  In fact, the FAA Reauthorization bill will require knowledge and safety testing for hobbyists.  But McNall infers there will also need to be a flight standard for commercial certification to demonstrate capability and qualifications.  This would be in additon to the knowledge and safety test that is already part of the commercial certification.

Just how far type certification of aircraft and capability testing for UAV pilots will go and how fast is a subject for speculation, but the FAA has signaled that, within its mandate to regulate safety, it will continue to expand requirements in the UAV segment as needed.