More than a year ago, on Feb. 14, 2012, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act became law, mandating, among other provisions, that the Federal Aviation Administration begin integrating unmanned aircraft systems (UAS, also called unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs), into national airspace by the end of 2015.
So far, the FAA has missed five of seven deadlines toward meeting this goal.
A recent report issued by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) outlines some of the challenges. For example, the report notes that the establishment of six test ranges for UAS operations, as required by the 2012 Act, was delayed due to privacy concerns. On Feb. 14, 2013, the FAA finally requested proposals for UAS research and test sites—nearly eight months after the deadline established in the 2012 Act.
Safety is also a chief concern. According to the GAO report, FAA efforts to develop safety, reliability and operational standards have been hindered by the agency’s inability to use seven years of existing Department of Defense data “because of differences in definitions and uncertainty about how to analyze these data.”
In short, the UAS integration process has been bogged down by technicalities.
The establishment of test sites is a milestone that will help the FAA address issues regarding safety. However, privacy concerns are another matter, largely due to public misperceptions of UAS as chiefly spy drones. Overcoming those misperceptions will be crucial to achieving commercial use of the technology. With mainstream media headlines focusing primarily on the negative implications of UAS integration into national airspace, here are five alternative views to consider:
1. UAS will boost the economy. As an innovative new tool for geospatial data collection, UAS have the potential to create a booming new market. Currently, federal, state and local agencies and educational institutions can request a certificate of authorization or waiver (COA) to fly UAS in a particular area for a particular purpose, while private commercial use of UAS is prohibited. Opening national airspace to commercial use of UAS will create new revenue streams through the manufacture and sale of UAS and related components, as well as the increased value of surveying and mapping deliverables for engineering and design projects. A 2012 market study from aerospace and defense market industry analyst Teal Group estimated that UAV spending will nearly double over the next decade from current worldwide UAV expenditures of $6.6 billion annually to $11.4 billion, totaling just over $89 billion in the next 10 years.
2. UAS will benefit consumers. Modern mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets and navigation systems rely on accurate location data. The ability to update maps “on the fly” is critical to ensuring mapping accuracy for emergency response and other essential public services, and access to rich datasets will provide new capabilities that enhance daily life.
3. UAS will improve environmental protection efforts through the ability to more easily monitor agriculture, wildlife and natural resources.
4. UAS are already being used in other countries. Countries such as the U.K. and Australia have already established a framework for operating UAS commercially, and lightweight UAS are also permitted in dozens of other countries. The longer it takes the FAA to approve UAS, the more difficult it will become for surveying and mapping firms in the U.S. to remain competitive.
5. Privacy is a matter of perception. While concerns about UAS being abused at the hands of government and law enforcement agencies are valid and need to be addressed, the many legitimate and beneficial uses of UAS must be given equal consideration. Taking the privacy argument too far could have a negative impact on existing services that are an integral part of consumers’ daily lives.
During a roundtable discussion on UAS at the recent MAPPS Winter Conference in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla., participants emphasized the need for government agencies and the public to understand the distinction between real-time surveillance, privacy and government activities on the one side, and mapping, archiving, public information and education on the other. There was also a general consensus that legislation should target the use of the data rather than the collection of the data. A concerted effort to work with the FAA to address these issues is under way.
The FAA request for proposals for UAS research and test sites is a positive step forward, but more progress is needed to make the 2015 integration deadline a reality. The GAO report acknowledges that the FAA faces a daunting task. “Continued collaboration among UAS stakeholders will be critical to minimizing duplication of research and addressing implementation obstacles,” the report said.