On September 8th, the Federal Aviation Administrator, Steve Dickson, said at the Commercial UAV Expo in Las Vegas that an official position of his administration on flights beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) might be as close as Thanksgiving. That’s about two months away.
But the question is, are we ready? There are three tracks that I believe are essential for drones and air taxis to safely populate the national airspace (NAS) at scale and for humanity to begin the process of benefiting from a clean way to distribute, inspect and transport.
Track 1: Technology
To be extremely simplistic, to have manned and unmanned aircraft sharing controlled airspace we will have to find a way to replace the functions of pilots and air traffic controllers in drones and potentially air taxis and that can only be accomplished with technology. Lots of it.
When we analyze the functions of a pilot, we realize that there are a series of repetitive and straightforward tasks that every pilot, flying in visual or instrument conditions, perform repeatedly. The trick would be to develop the right technology to perform these functions in a repeatable and safe manner. Detect and Avoid (DAA) is a good example of what pilots do routinely and UAVs will have to do automatically without human supervision.
According to a Boeing study approximately 80% of aviation accidents are caused by humans, so the safety threshold for pilot-replacement strategies is pretty low, but it is also important to remember that most of the time pilots avoid disaster by making unorthodox decisions that machines are not ready to make just yet. Captain Sullenberger and US Airways Flight 1549 comes to mind.
The other side of the equation is that air traffic controllers have an incredibly challenging job with maintaining separation and channeling thousands of flights a day through a complex web of invisible airways and hundreds of airports. They are already stretched too thin to add UAVs and UAM into the mix. How can we support ATC with technology? Well, very simply, we keep them informed of UAVs and UAMs activities, but do not involve them in the routing decisions of these unmanned aircraft.
Unmanned traffic management (UTM) systems are the logical answer to this conundrum, and thankfully we have made a lot of progress lately on this front. UTMs are designed to handle unmanned aircraft flying at low altitudes and following certain criteria that involve pre-defined corridors, strict routing protocols and safety provisions.
ATC will have constant access to the UTM assigned to their respective sectors, but at no time will they have to make decisions or interfere with unmanned traffic unless there is an imminent emergency and conflict with manned aviation.
There are other technologies that would help facilitate the addition of unmanned aircraft to the NAS, but DAA and UTM are a good illustration of the challenges in terms of hardware and software.
Track 2: Community
Because we are adding UAVs and UAMs to the NAS to benefit people, it is only logical that we involve them in the decision. We need a thorough analysis of the impact on and the opinion of, end users.
Today the main concern of communities seems to be the noise associated with aircraft, especially helicopters and low-flying commercial jets, even though the sound emitted by a small drone is considered annoying at best. So, will people be willing to compromise on the noise based on the amazing benefits coming from UAVs? Not necessarily. A NASA study concluded that the issue of noise is a bigger obstacle to full deployment than originally thought.
Safety and privacy are amongst other relevant issues that people have mentioned as areas of caution when asked about drones flying overhead. Regardless of their original opposition to the idea, everyone seems to agree that it would be great to have same-day deliveries by drone, but there are still a lot of challenges to work through. Thankfully lots of established and new companies are doing innovative R&D to solve these problems and be first to market in what promises to be an enormous revenue stream and a total addressable market (TAM) in the billions of Dollars.
Another huge obstacle with unmanned aviation, especially air taxis or Urban Air Mobility (UAM, also called Advanced Air Mobility or AAM) seems to be ground infrastructure. Constructing new airports in urban zones seems like a non-starter, especially in the era of NIMBY (Not in My Backyard). Therefore adding new infrastructure to support aviation operations is not the way to go. Using existing installations, especially general aviation (GA) airports, flat-top buildings, parking lots, shopping malls or other open sky areas seem to be the most expedite way to move forward.
The reality is that we will need ground structures to support the necessary areas associated with changing transportation modes from road to air and vice-versa, such as parking, recharging stations and take-off and landing pads. Uber Elevate, the ridesharing company initiative aimed at adding air taxis to their existing services, is optimistic that existing installations could be transformed to serve as vertiports, the name they are using to designate these new structures.
Track 3: Airspace
Today UAVs can fly within visual range of their operators and special waivers can be obtained to take flight BVLOS under special circumstances for specific purposes. The speech by the FAA administrator during the recent Commercial UAV Expo in Las Vegas, sent a powerful message to an industry eager, ready, and able to launch regular drone and air taxi services. His message gave hope to hundreds of small, medium, and large companies that the end of the waiting period will be soon over, and the FAA will be ready to start deployment under a crawl-walk-run model.
The first thing that needs to be regulated is BVLOS in which there is no need to have visual observers on the ground monitoring the flight. This will allow operators to reduce human intervention and scale their flights from the current handful to hundreds or even thousands. But how close are we to this new reality? Not very close, unfortunately and the best wishes of an eager government official is not enough to populate the skies with countless unmanned aircraft.
The hopeful truth is that if the FAA is willing to begin tests in non-congested areas and if the existing cooperation between NASA, the FAA, academia, and industry can be expedited, we could see initial efforts to test how manned and unmanned aviation behave and react to each other and that will give way to more and more areas added to the system.
Summing up, now that the FAA has publicly given a date for an initial opinion on BVLOS, and given the huge advances in DAA and UTM over the past 18 months, the world seems to be getting closer to the day when drones, air taxis, commercial jets and general aviation aircraft will share controlled airspace in a new era of air transportation that will definitely and dramatically change the way we shop, travel and for some, perform our daily jobs. But first we will have to address, as a community, these three tracks.