UAS Commercialization Is In The Air

By Patrick C. Miller | April 02, 2015

Since our UAS Magazine team began covering the world of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) last fall, I’ve had numerous conversations with people who spoke of what they wanted to do with unmanned aircraft, but couldn’t because of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) ban on commercial use.

This appears to be changing. The FAA has released proposed rules for small UAS. The agency has streamlined the process for certificates of authorization (COAs), enabling entities that have received commercial exemptions to fly UAS anywhere in the country without the need to acquire a COA for every flight.

But that doesn’t mean as much as hearing the viewpoint of David Yoel, CEO of American Aerospace in Bridgeport, Pennsylvania. Since 2010, his company has conducted more than 100 research flights in the national airspace of three states for beyond-line-of-sight UAS operations.

Yoel is encouraged that the situation is changing for the better.

“The market is beginning to evolve now and finally starting to grow,” he said. “We’re excited that the market is finally beginning to tick up.”

Last week, Virginia Tech and the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) announced that American Aerospace was a key part of a research project with Pipeline Research Council International. Yoel was the pilot in command of the RS-16 unmanned aerial vehicle that flew an 11-mile pre-programmed flight in Virginia over a private pipeline right of way.

“We hope that the regulatory framework for critical beyond-line-of-sight applications—such as linear infrastructure inspection—is an area that gets early approval from the FAA,” Yoel said.

The RS-16 flew autonomously under the command of the pilot in the ground control station while a chase helicopter with an observer followed behind.

“When you’re flying beyond line of sight—and we were as much as 10 miles away from our launch point and our ground control station—we use the helicopter as the eyes of the aircraft to sense and avoid other aircraft,” Yoel explained.

Inspecting power lines and pipelines is exactly the type of dull, dirty and dangerous job for which UAS technology is best suited.

“You’re not flying a different route every day,” Yoel noted. “You’re flying the same route over and over again so you can develop that expertise and that knowledge and that situational awareness on how to operate and effectively maintain safety.”

Furthermore, using UAS equipped with sensors to detect incursions into a pipeline right of way improves public safety and can save utilities the cost of expensive repairs.

“The biggest cause of leaks and damage on pipeline corridors in the continental U.S. is third-party machinery digging holes without realizing that there’s buried pipe below,” Yoel explained. “This causes tens of millions of dollars in damage every year across the United States. Detecting this third-party machinery on pipeline corridors is an important process for improving the safety and integrity of the pipeline network.”

Currently, the objective of the MAAP project is to demonstrate that flight operations can be conducted safely. Once that’s established, using the sensors to detect threats to the pipeline will begin. .

“The eventual goal of the program is to do this in an automated fashion to send out alarms when a threat is identified, as opposed to sending the data to the ground to have an individual look at the imagery,” he said.

Our tendency in covering UAS news has been to report each new COA or commercial waiver the FAA approves as quickly as possible. Lately, it seems that announcements of approvals are coming so frequently that they might soon be too routine to warrant a story.

Yoel’s experience gives reason for hope that UAS technology is at last turning the commercialization corner. 


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