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The public perception of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) over the last decade has been shaped to a large extent by their deployment for military missions that are often shrouded in secrecy. But, to quote the mighty Bob Dylan for a second: “The times, they are a-changin’.”
The emergence of a wealth of civil applications for UAS means that the sector is poised at a new frontier where the technology of the battlefield is becoming increasingly ingrained in everyday life.
In its latest annual UAV market profile and forecast, Teal Group predicts that current worldwide spending on UAVs will nearly double over the next decade, totalling almost $91 billion. Although civil UAV spending will account for only 11% of the total, civil spend is on an upward trend and will be closer to 14% in 10 years’ time. That equates to a $10bn-plus opportunity for industry in a wealth of new applications.
Underlining the scale of the opportunity, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) produced its own economic impact report in 2013, studying the potential contribution of UAS integration. Its research suggested that by 2025 successful integration could create 100,000 jobs in the United States and an economic benefit of $82bn.
So, beyond the numbers, in which walks of life are we likely to see unmanned aircraft make the biggest impact? The AUVSI research concludes that precision agriculture and public safety represent the most promising commercial and civil markets, accounting for about 90% of known potential markets for UAS.
But there are plenty of other applications from disaster management to weather monitoring, television coverage to oil and gas exploration.
In February the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Department of Transportation announced proposed new rules for small unmanned aircraft systems that will improve their integration into the National Airspace System. The FAA is still developing rules for larger unmanned aircraft, which could take several years before they are ready to implement. If regulation can keep pace with technology development, the civil frontier for UAS could herald a true revolution in unmanned flight.
Above: Interview with Gerry Corbett, CAA's UAS Programme Lead
UK CAA keeps safety in sight
Regulations governing the use of civil unmanned aircraft in UK airspace come under the remit of the UK’s aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
As the numbers of unmanned aircraft has increased substantially in recent years, the CAA has evolved the ‘rulebook’ to ensure that they can operate safely. The guiding principle is that UAS should not pose any greater risk to the public than the equivalent manned operations.
The CAA’s oversight is focused solely on safety – it does not deal with privacy or nuisance issues. Anyone operating small unmanned aircraft (less than 20kg) for commercial use requires CAA permission to conduct operations. Aerial work operators also have to prove their competence and an understanding of safety implications.
Since 2010 the CAA has issued more than 550 permissions for the use of unmanned aircraft in aerial work.
The regulations also require operators to maintain unaided direct visual line of sight with the aircraft at all times – normally to a maximum distance of 500m horizontally and 400ft vertically. Permission is not required to fly small unmanned aircraft less than 20kg for personal use, subject to certain conditions.
Larger unmanned aircraft being tested for civilian applications are flown in segregated airspace, which is essentially closed to other aircraft, for safety reasons – in keeping with their military equivalents.
And what of the future? From a safety perspective, the CAA cites the need for industry to develop a ‘detect and avoid’ capability before unmanned aircraft can integrate safely into shared airspace.
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