Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Great Challenges; Great Possibilities

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) expert Mark Bathrick was the featured speaker at Startup Grind’s January 22nd Fireside Chat at the new Boise TechMall.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ylq9Yz5ViiQ]


Currently, Mark leads a nationwide aviation services enterprise for the federal government.  He is a recognized expert in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and has been called upon by the White House, the Federal Aviation Administration, academia, and industry for his UAS expertise.  You can read more about Mark at http://bit.ly/18AfWSb.

A Boise resident, Mark is, in common parlance, a drone expert. And when he speaks, he does so from the perspective of someone who is dealing with the intricacies of drone regulation from the highest levels of our federal government.

How do you shepherd in a huge industry? Very carefully.

“Let me first say there's a lot of FAA bashing and I'm a Fed so you can bash us because sometimes we deserve it,” Mark said “But the FAA is faced with a difficult challenge. There's a tremendous push from the commercial sector [to develop the UAS industry], and rightly so. The industry shows tremendous promise. It’s estimated that UAS represents an estimated $89 billion industry waiting at the starting gate. “

Despite all the excitement surrounding the potential uses of drone aircraft, Bathrick said, the FAA must walk a fine line because “none of us who fly or even if we walk, want to have the airspace be less safe than it is today.We'd like it even more safe.”

With the recent news of the drone flight into White House airspace, the issue of UAS regulation has heightened public concerns about UAS technology.

From a capability standpoint, Bathrick says, today’s drones represent a whole new level of evolution over previous unmanned aircraft. You can buy drones today with highly capable on-board cameras, GPS, and high-powered radios. They can be flown well outside visual line of sight. And all you need to pilot a drone with this kind of enhanced capability is a credit card and an Internet connection.

This new functionality, he says, has caused obvious concern. Any drone use represents a potential hazard. There are safety issues, security issues, and privacy issues.

“During 9/11, we used the air traffic control system to put all the planes on the ground. All traffic control had to do was radio the pilots to land. How do you that in a drone situation? That's one of the challenges being addressed by NASA, in collaboration with other agencies and companies in developing an unmanned traffic management system for UAS.”

The genie in the bottle

Bathrick pointed out that here in the U.S. the big issue is regulating drones in a way that enables a commercial industry to develop while still protecting privacy, safety, and security. Internationally, he said, the approach has been different.  Across much of the international community, governments previously allowed drone operations with little or no regulation.  These governments are now experiencing the unfortunate effects of that approach.

“Two days ago there was a drone flying over the French presidential palace. A few weeks before that there were drones flying around French nuclear power plants. So what we're seeing is the international community is trying to put the genie back in the bottle, while over here we're trying to responsibly open the bottle a little bit and let some out.”

Having said that, he was clear to note that the FAA is very aware of the complexities involved in opening up the skies (even at a very low height) to drones.

Drones as “hard birds”

“One of the big weaknesses [of UAS vehicles] is that they operate on frequencies that are common to many other things. 2.4 or 5.2 gHz is exactly what your broadband is at home. If a drone flies through a frequency that happens to be broadcasting at a higher power than your little controller, guess what? It likes that one better than it likes yours, and can take off—and that can cause problems—big ones.

“Think of drones as very hard birds. I've been hit by birds in the sky and I've lost engines and had structural damage so I would not want to be hit by a runaway drone.” Nor would any private, commercial, or military aircraft.

Another weakness of most drones is their reliance on communications from a ground operator for control.  This makes them vulnerable to loss of signal from interference, blanking, or flying out of range.  When an unmanned aircraft loses the signal that is guiding it, he says, the vehicle has to decide what it's going to do; drones are usually programmed to handle this situation, he says.

According to Bathrick the biggest challenge to safely integrating UAS into the national airspace—with the ability to fly beyond the line of sight of the operator—is developing a system that enables UAS to “sense and avoid” other stationary or moving objects.

Sense and avoid systems rely on radar, onboard transponders, or other active means. They suffer the same vulnerabilities as the two-way radio links used to control most drones.

“That's why I say these systems have to be self-contained or “non-cooperative. Plus, there is the fact that currently we don't have traffic management in the air below 500 feet except around airports, because aircraft aren't supposed to fly below 500 feet on a regular basis. So if you're talking about having some kind of ground-based system, you're talking about adding a tremendous amount of radar or similar technology.  And that means a significant investment of time and money to develop, test, and install that infrastructure.”

As a decorated Navy fighter pilot, experimental test pilot, two-time squadron commander and base commander, Bathrick knows full well the dangers inherent in any aircraft. But at the end of the day, what he thinks of when he thinks of the future of UAS vehicles is yes, great challenges, but also great promise.

The local connection

Bathrick had a lot of good things to say about what’s going on locally in this burgeoning industry.  Mark noted that one of the first UAS companies to make significant inroads into this new industry is located right here in the Treasure Valley.

“I was on a conference call today with a group of U.S. Senate staffers and the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration),” Mark said.  “One local UAS company, ADAVSO (Advanced Aviation Solutions at adavso.com), got a shout out from the FAA in that meeting as being one of the first precision agricultural recipients of a ‘333 exemption,’ which allows ADAVSO to fly its drones commercially.”

Other local UAS businesses include Bio-Inspired Technologies (http://www.bioinspired.net/) in Boise, Thrust UAV (http://www.thrust-uav.com/) in Boise, xcraft (www.xcraft.io) in Sandpoint and Empire Unmanned (www.empireunmanned.com) in Hayden. Boise-based Aeroleds (www.aeroleds.com) develops lighting systems that can be used on UAS. BSU’s Department of Geosciences is actively pursuing the use of drones to better understand the state’s hydrology system.

When is it OK to fly a drone?

Of particular concern to the Startup Grind audience was whether the use of drones for fun, for profit, or for research is legal.

“What the FAA has said is that drone use is considered commercial if you fly them for compensation or to help yourself in your own business.”

Bathrick told a story about a friend of his who is using drones on his own farm.

“[My friend] is doing work on his own fields, so he’s not paying himself. But he’s getting the commercial benefit from that so it’s considered commercial use, and he’s not allowed to do it… unless, again, he got a 333 exemption.”

However, Bathrick said, drone flight research can be legally conducted indoors. “Recently I was at the University of Idaho. They have the greatest indoor UAS test facility: it’s called the Kibbie Dome. The FAA actually has no jurisdiction in what they call non-navigable airspace such as large warehouses and indoor stadiums, so developing and testing drones in facilities like that is legal.”

But Bathrick said that until formal UAS certification regulations are developed, like those we have for manned aircraft, legal commercial use will be limited to those companies that have obtained that coveted 333 exemption.

Adding another dimension to life as we know it

“In 1903,” Bathrick reminded the audience, “Orville and Wilbur Wright took a two dimensional species and gave us a third dimension. Until now, though, it’s been expensive for us to explore that third dimension. You’ve got to buy an airplane. You’ve got to get flight lessons. It’s tough to do. You just don’t walk out your garage and get in an airplane.

With drones, he said, “All of a sudden every person is three dimensional-capable. It’s really three dimensions for the masses. Today’s drones are highly capable, accessible, affordable, and easy to use. They provide everyday people the ability to access images, video, and data that previously could only be obtained from expensive manned aircraft.

“I completely understand the interest in drones and why people want to use them. It’s really amazing technology. What I hope is that the people have UAS use them responsibly so this industry can grow to its full potential. That’s why I’m here tonight: to promote the responsible development of this exciting new industry.”


Guest Writer:

Hobart Swan