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The UAS Problem Of Scale

A lesson I learned while working in the energy industry is that sometimes a technology that works well on the micro level is fraught with unforeseen problems when scaled up, a scenario that can happen in the UAS world as well.
By Patrick C. Miller | September 10, 2015

A lesson I learned while working in the energy industry is that sometimes a technology that works well on the micro level is fraught with unforeseen problems when scaled up to meet the needs of millions of people.

For example, we know how to generate electricity using nuclear fuel. However, the more energy you generate with nuclear power and the more you become dependent on it, safely disposing of the waste becomes a much larger problem.

The same principle applies to unmanned aerial systems (UAS). What looks good for a small-scale operation becomes an entirely different matter when thousands of UAS operators are flying in the same piece of sky. This is especially true when a system for UAS radio control over long distances and collision avoidance technology has yet to be proven in the difficult environment of the world’s most complex airspace.

The point was reinforced when I spoke to David Phillips, Textron Systems Unmanned Systems vice president of small and medium-endurance UAS, for an article on beyond line-of-sight (LOS) operations featured in the next issue of UAS Magazine due out this month.

“It’s completely unacceptable in beyond line-of-sight operations that if you lose link, your aircraft just falls out of the sky,” Phillips said.

A drone flying a research mission in a remote, sparsely populated area of the country is unlikely to cause much of a problem if it suddenly drops from the sky. However, imagine this occurring with thousands of drones flying in populated areas. The prospect of UAS falling out of the sky becomes a significant and potentially dangerous problem.

As Phillips noted, Textron Systems has more than 110,000 hours of experience flying its Aerosonde UAS on difficult beyond LOS civil and military missions in extremely challenging conditions. So that’s good because it demonstrates that the technology exists and it works—within the confines under which the missions are presently flown.

But Phillips admits that even with the UAS advances Textron Systems has made in beyond LOS technology, the company is still testing sense-and-avoid systems for their unmanned aircraft.

David Yoel, founder and CEO of American Aerospace Technologies—another UAS expert I interviewed for my article—stressed the difficulty of the sense-and-avoid problem by pointing out that UAVs not only needed to avoid collisions with manned and unmanned aircraft, but also with hot air balloons and skydivers.

The good news is that there are companies with great resources such as Textron Systems and people like Yoel with decades of experience in the aerospace industry working on solutions that will enable UAS beyond LOS missions. However, my sense from visits with those involved in the research that the UAS industry is probably a ways away from scaling up to the level of operations many desire and envision.