Industry, Regulators Look Beyond Small UAS Rule
Kicking off the 2016 Interdrone conference, Federal Aviation Administrator Michael Huerta said his agency now estimates that there could be as many as 600,000 UAS used commercially in the first year after the enactment of the small UAS rule, also known as Part 107.
More than 520,000 hobbyists have also registered their drones for fun, which outnumbers the number of manned aircraft by more than 200,000 — and Huerta noted “it took a century to get to that number.”
The FAA has been trying to stop “moving at the speed of government,” he said, and has been successful at accelerating the pace at which it approves Section 333 exemptions. When they first started, it took three months to authorize the first seven operators, he noted.
By this summer, the agency was approving several dozen every day. Now that the small UAS rule has largely taken over from the exemption process, speed is expected there too, he said.
Part 107 includes a waiver provision where companies can be granted approval to fly in ways that go beyond what’s allowed in the rule. By mid-morning of the first day it took effect, Aug. 29, Huerta said the agency had already approved 76 of them, and is continuing to grant several a day.
Many of those had been in the works before the rule debuted. Speaking later in the day at the same conference, the FAA’s Marke “Hoot” Gibson, senior advisor on UAS integration, said the current waiver approval time is around 90 days, but the FAA is trying to shorten that.
One thing it is doing is urging companies to study waivers that have already been granted, so theirs can be approved more rapidly. Gibson said the bulk of the request are for flights at night, with flights beyond visual line of sight running a distant second.
“I think it’s really going to move the industry along,” Gibson said of the waiver process.
More rulemaking is on the horizon. The agency expects to have a proposed rule for flying over people out by the end of the year, with another for beyond-line-of-sight flights coming next year.
“This is laying the foundation for more numerous and more complex drone operations,” Huerta said.
Two companies who are pushing for more complex drone operations are Amazon and Intel. Amazon has its Prime Air project, which Paul Misener, vice president of global innovation policy and communications, speaking at an afternoon session, said currently includes the testing of several prototype drones at development centers in the United States, the United Kingdom, Austria and Israel.
“We anticipate a family of prototypes and operational vehicles,” he said.
Amazon is also testing a variety of new flight methods in the U.K., including beyond line of sight, multi-vehicle operations from a single pilot and sense and avoid technology, which will be crucial.
Misener said the company wants its delivery drones to be autonomous like a horse; you can crash a car into a tree or a bush, but “try making a horse run into a bush or tree. It won’t do it.”
Intel is another nontraditional drone company that has moved into the space in a big way, buying a stake in Chinese drone maker Yuneec, purchasing the German company Ascending Technologies and most recently buying the Irish computer vision company Movidius.
Anil Naduri, who established the company’s drone business, said “we consider drones as flying computers.”
The company has developed the RealSense sense-and-avoid system and made it small enough to be incorporated on small drones, including some Yuneec systems and Intel’s own new drone, the Aero, which he says was “designed by drone enthusiasts and built for developers.”
That’s a small system, to be available in the fourth quarter of this year, which will include open source software so it can be modified by developers.
The company is also moving into the commercial drone market with the Ascending Technologies Falcon 8, a robust system that can still fly normally after losing two rotors, as an Intel employee demonstrated onstage during Naduri’s talk.
Intel recently used the Falcon 8, which is already on the market in Europe, to conduct an aircraft inspection of an Airbus A380 aircraft at Farnborough in England. The RealSense technology allowed the drone to fly within meters of the aircraft, and cut the full inspection time from two hours to less than 15 minutes.