Booming Unmanned Aircraft Industry Straining to Break Free of Regulations
Parsons, Dan, National Defense
* The advent of unmanned aerial vehicles taking flight within U.S. national airspace could mean an enormous economic windfall for aviation entrepreneurs and the nation's economy.
But a booming domestic UAV industry is desperately trying to break free of strict rules that will keep their designs grounded until 2015 at the earliest. UAV advocates are finding their message difficult to deliver, with widespread assumptions that lethal war machines will buzz their neighborhoods. Other opposition camps view the aircraft as a Big Brother technology that will bring prying eyes into citizen's homes.
While drones have been proven effective as a weapon of war, they have been used for that purpose predominantly over areas of the world with little or no commercial air traffic But in less restrictive countries, unmanned aircraft are already an established tool aiding farmers, first responders and fishermen.
By learning from those countries, namely Japan, advocates for UAV integration insist that the technology will pour billions of dollars into the U.S. economy in just a few years. But companies chafing under current Federal Aviation Administration restrictions are uncertain that the agency will work out the kinks by the 2015 deadline set by the Obama administration.
"There is a perception in the industry that the process is moving slowly," said Chris Mailey, vice president of knowledge resources with the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. "Certainly we would like to have had it done yesterday, but the FAA must do it safely. In that sense, it is perfectly understandable that they are taking their time."
AUVSI projects an $82.1 billion infusion into the U.S. economy over the 10 years following 2015, the year the FAA is supposed to have rules in place governing UAVs in national airspace. Agricultural applications of UAVs alone could pump $75.6 billion into the economy over the decade, according to an optimistic report published by AUVSI in March.
Public safety and "other applications," like natural resource management, will produce $3.2 billion each, the report said.
The industry is projected to create just over 100,000 jobs during the same period, two-thirds of which will spring up in the first three years after integration. Many of those jobs will be manufacturing positions that pay more than $40,000 annually.
Mailey said the study, compiled using several academic reports, was a conservative estimate of the impact UAS integration would have once the FAA opens up the national airspace.
To illustrate their point, Mailey and other advocates for integration point to Japan, where an aging farming population has been using small unmanned helicopters to manage their crops for decades.
When the Japanese government about 20 years ago realized its farming population was at risk of growing too old for the work required, officials approached Yamaha Motor Corp. about developing vehicles that could make farming more efficient.
Four years later, it had the R-MAX unmanned helicopter, which has been in wide use for more than 15 years. The remotely piloted aircraft is nine feet long, with 12-foot rotors and stands four feet tall. Running on a 20-horsepower, two-stroke engine, it can carry up to 61 pounds of seed, fertilizer, pesticide or water.
An autonomous version, which is not used for agriculture, was used to monitor disaster relief and cleanup efforts at the Fukushima nuclear power plant damaged in last year's earthquake and tsunami, said Steve Markofski, a corporate planner with Yamaha's U.S. division.
Markofski oversaw tests of the unmanned helicopter in Lost Hills and Oakville, Calif in November, where the R-MAX would be ideally suited for spraying short-rowed crops.
"For places like these that grow grapes, almonds and pistachios, this system will perform very well, and we are confident the technology will catch on," he said. …