After providing huge operational benefits to warfighters and transforming ISR technology in the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan, unmanned aerial systems (UASs) equipped for overhead imaging and other sensing are poised to bring major changes to the domestic GEOINT field.
It is not only that the U.S. fleet of UASs, from Predators and Global Hawks to small hand-launched units, will be returning to CONUS, where they could be available for a variety of military and civilian government missions. In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is moving to allow commercial UAS use domestically beginning next year, ending a longstanding bar on most such deployments.
The first concrete step toward domestic UAS use came in June, when the FAA for the first time authorized a commercial UAS operation over land, allowing energy corporation BP and UAS manufacturer AeroVironment to fly an AeroVironment Puma AE for aerial surveys in Alaska. Earlier, the agency had issued certificates to the Puma and Insitu’s Scan Eagle for aerial surveillance over Arctic waters.
As will be true for BP’s use for monitoring pipelines and roads, most of the tasks carried out by commercial UASs will be oriented to the needs of such industries as energy, mapping and real estate development. But private resources could also be deployed for key homeland security missions, such as harbor monitoring, as well as ongoing military needs in such areas as flood control and base construction.
Perhaps the most prominent potential use for UASs, both commercially operated and returned military assets, will be in monitoring the U.S.-Mexico border. U.S. Customs and Border Protection operates a fleet of about 10 UASs, and experts say their slow speeds and long duration are well suited to such tasks. Moreover, any comprehensive immigration legislation that emerges from Congress over the next few years is expected to be a compromise combining a pathway to citizenship for undocumented residents with a substantial increase in funding for border control.
Still, any surge in domestic UAS use will have to contend with public concern over both the potential privacy and safety implications of having a lot of remotely piloted vehicles flying over their heads. While completely unrelated in terms of technology to recent revelations about government monitoring of communications, domestic UASs may evoke similar feelings of uneasiness in many people.
Although industry had been pressing for relaxation of UAS rules for several years, the key change did not come until 2012, when Congress passed legislation directing the FAA to create regulations for domestic use by 2015.
The agency has been laying the groundwork for the change since then, issuing various UAS roadmaps and plans and identifying six locations around the country to operate research centers. The pace of activity led some observers to warn that the agency was dragging its feet on the changes, but now most in industry feel that new regulations will go into effect as planned, according to Jeff Lovin, senior vice president and director of geospatial services for Woolpert, a design, geospatial and infrastructure firm.
“We’re very hopeful and optimistic that the rulemaking process will come to fruition and we will get the green flag, so we can start air acquisition next year as planned. There was some concern, but after attending recent conferences, I think there is a groundswell of interest and input from the industry, and the FAA is feeling the pressure. I’m hoping they will stick to their timeline,” Lovin said.
The FAA is planning for incremental changes in the regulations based on vehicle weight and flight height, with the smallest platforms (under 55 pounds) and lowest altitudes (about 600 feet or less) opened up first.
For its first deployment under the new regulations, for example, Woolpert is currently working on a system based on the Altavian Nova Block III platform, an 11-pound, all-electric, hand-launchable unit, and targeting it for initial applications in the range of 400 feet to 600 feet. The company is conducting accuracy testing and workflow development for detailed aerial mapping remote sensing applications, working with Sinclair Community College, Woolpert’s Dayton, Ohio, neighbor, in nearby airspace set aside for UAS research.
Woolpert plans to focus its UAS service initially on smaller projects. “We see deploying this first for our survey mapping aspects, for example a development of 300 to 500 acres being developed commercially. That size of an area, which is typical for engineering development, is almost too small for today’s air mapping technology, with its large format cameras and twin engine aircraft, which are very expensive. You can’t pay for a $1 million sensor flying 300 acre mapping projects. So what we have been doing is trying to do that with boots-on-the-ground survey work. Although that works because of advances in survey technology, that is where I see UAS technology filling an important niche,” Lovin said.
“Surveyors will be able to deploy a UAS that will fly a mini aerial mapping mission,” he added. “So a project site that might take three days for a multi-person crew can be done in a day or less with a UAS.”
As a mapping firm, Woolpert’s primary UAS sensor will be a two-color mapping camera with very high accuracy. For the future, however, it is looking at the potential for other large format sensors, such as multispectral, which could enable more robust remote sensing, feature extraction, or thermal applications, as well as small, lightweight light detection and ranging sensors.
While they look forward to expanded UAS use, companies like Woolpert see risks in the return of military assets from Southwest Asia. Not only could government-provided services compete with the private sector, they warn, but also government customers could lose the expertise of their long-term vendors.
“Being a private sector business owner, I am concerned that as we pull out of Southwest Asia and bring our assets home, you are going to start seeing a lot of the military UAS assets deployed for civilian purposes. We’ve already run into a few instances of that, where an agency that Woolpert has worked with doing air mapping needs now [has] a military aircraft coming in and doing it,” Lovin said.
“I can understand the benefits of the government working for the government, but that is going to be a challenge,” he continued. “We’ve developed good technologies in this field over the past decade, and a lot of those assets are returning to the states. A lot of them will be deployed for civil purposes, where there are already private sector firms offering those services.
“Technology developed for war fighting and intelligence collection isn’t necessarily the best technology for mapping or flood control,” Lovin said. “We’ve been doing this work for 30 to 40 years, so we really understand clients’ needs.” ♦
- Issue: 5
- Volume: 12