Virginia Tech's Mark Blanks provides optimistic outlook on UAS


“Drones are going to change our daily experience.”

That was the opening statement of Mark Blanks, director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), during a media briefing in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 13.

There are a number of ways that UAS could change our daily experience, according to Blanks, with UAS package delivery, insurance claims, traffic management and air transportation being just the tip of the iceberg.

But before we can get to the point where UAS have a daily impact our lives, Blanks — who serves on the Board of Directors for AUVSI, and on the Advocacy Committee of AUVSI —  says there are a number of hurdles that the industry has to surpass. Chief among these are security concerns, safety assurance and technology maturity.

Security concerns are the biggest issue the industry is dealing with, according to Blanks. Questions about the identification of a UAS, its reasoning for being where it is, and whether or not the operator of that UAS has approval to be there, are all central questions to industry, the FAA, local law enforcement, and the public when addressing the issue of security.

To address the issue of security of concerns, the FAA created an Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) a few months ago, which is dedicated to remote identification and tracking. Made up of industry professionals, the FAA, law enforcement and other members, the ARC make recommendations to the FAA on what the rules should look like to solve the issues surrounding security.

The committee is expected to submit its final report by the end of September.

For the public at large, security is a major concern in terms of the integration of UAS into the national airspace, and Blanks says it is incumbent on agencies that want to use UAS within communities across the country to talk to members of that community to assure them that this technology is for good, and not bad.

“Communication is one of the big pillars,” Blanks says.

Blanks acknowledged how far drones have come in just the past few years in terms of public perception, as two years ago, he would have never said the word “drone” unless he was talking about something that happened overseas.

Blanks says that the connotation of the word drone has changed a lot in a short amount of time, as people have started to see the good that the technology can be used for.
“That shows a growing public, community, acceptance,” Blanks says.

Blanks adds that the worst thing for a public agency that wants to use UAS to do is to not share any information with the community, because people don’t want to see a random drone flying around in their vicinity if they have no idea why it’s there to begin with.

To address the issue of security concerns, Virginia Tech is testing new technologies, such as unmanned traffic management systems, in partnership with industry, which leads to some of the standards development that the school is doing.

Standards development can be a lengthy process, but Blanks says he is hopeful that the topic of UAS security is a high enough priority to where the standards can be developed in a timely fashion.

In terms of safety assurance, operations over people or beyond line of sight have to be deemed safe, and this also has to be certified. Standards and requirements have to be established, as well as trust in autonomy.

Design standards, the requirements, training, and “methods of demonstrating the reliability of risk mitigation” are all needed, and tests are being conducted at Virginia Tech to develop a testing method to determine when something is safe and when something is not safe.

Technological maturity

The last issue that the industry is facing, technology maturity, is one that is unique. Blanks acknowledges that a common saying is that the “technology is being held back by the regulation,” but he also admits that there is some technology that is not ready for “prime time yet.

“Some technology needs to mature more before we can certify and prove that it is reliable,” Blanks says. One of the hardest technological issues that Blanks highlighted was the detecting and avoiding of other aircraft, which enables beyond line of sight operations.

UAS don’t have eyeballs on them, so the technology needs to be developed for this specific issue. While there are potential answers out there for this issue, none of them have been proven as of yet.

Virginia Tech is trying to develop new testing methods with the FAA for some of these new technologies, such as radar, in an effort to validate them.

Ultimately, safety is at the forefront of everything that’s being done at Virginia Tech.

“The work that we’re doing is all about mitigating risk,” Blanks says. While all risk can’t be eliminated, Blanks says that he hopes that the risks will be no more than other aviation, and risks encountered every day by the average person.

During the briefing, Blanks referenced a quote from former AUVSI President Michael Toscano, who said that “drones are a revolutionary technology on an evolutionary path.” Blanks says the industry is hitting “major changes” in that evolution, with events such as the use of drones in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said during the InterDrone Conference in Las Vegas last week that the “hurricane response will be looked back upon as a landmark in the evolution of drone usage in this country.”

The passing of the small UAS Rule, commonly known as Part 107, was another point in the evolution, Blanks said.

The next points in the evolution, he estimates, are beyond line of sight operations, and operations over people. 

“This is going to keep evolving and keep growing, and it’s definitely going to revolutionize a lot of our lives,” Blanks says.