The new FAA bill paves the way for use of UAVs into commercial US skies, opening up new market opportunities for technology vendors that now operate in the government and defense industry.
We believe that the growth of components, systems and technologies that surround UAV/UAS will explode when the public airspace opens up for unmanned systems. This is because unmanned systems can be sold to many different end-users that never had the opportunity to take advantage of this technology before. It opens up new ideas and applications for ways in which unmanned systems in our commercial skies could be used. For example, farmers now pay commercial pilots to fly over their crops to see if there are any health issues e.g., viruses, irregularities, insect problems, etc. This type of application now can be done by an unmanned system at arguably a much lower price point. Oil and gas or energy companies can use UAS platforms to monitor the health of pipelines and other infrastructures from the air covering large, remote areas that would otherwise take enormous amounts of time and manpower. Local police departments can have a UAS in the trunk of their cruisers and use it for hostage situations to get better visibility into what’s going on inside a building. It also can be used to help track criminals from fleeing a crime scene. Border patrol and homeland security officials can deploy unmanned systems along our nation’s borders to monitor illegal immigration and potential safety hazards arriving in U.S ports. Developing countries might use UAS to spray things like mosquito repellant and pesticides to help eliminate viruses that are detrimental to the health of the society. These are just a few of the applications officials and companies have identified for tapping the benefits of UAS in our commercial skies and just how big the potential is for this new market for UAS. This truly is what the industry has been waiting for and one of the big challenges we face is addressing the way to properly manage the tens of thousands, potentially even hundreds of thousands of new unmanned systems that were never in the commercial airspace before.
FreeWave sees some additional challenges ahead as well. In particular, a lot of new rules and regulations that will be put in place to make sure that piloted systems safely and effectively share the sky with unmanned systems. We will want to make sure that proper protocols are put in place to help govern the airspace so that unmanned systems don’t inflict damage upon people, property or any other manned (or unmanned) systems. With the amount of helicopters, private planes and big jetliners in the skies today, the question becomes, how we as a society manage all of the new air traffic with the introduction of UAS platforms into the U.S. commercial skies. Right now, pilots and air traffic controllers manage the traffic control systems along the entire flight path to make sure everyone knows where the plane is, the latitude and longitude, the elevation it is flying at, etc. We don’t have that capability with a non-piloted system so how are we going to manage the airspace with unmanned systems joining piloted systems? The answer: by implementing sense and avoid techniques and/ or collision avoidance capabilities. These techniques will require the use of many different systems, including sensors, analytics, evaluations and more. Since sensing a target is only the first step to collision avoidance, effective maneuvering procedures and accounting for environmental factors also need to be incorporated. Collaboration on the development of UAS sense and avoid techniques must be conducted in a comprehensive systems approach and not just one layer of functionality. These technologies can also be used by manned aircrafts to further increase the safety of their operation as well.
On a different note, it becomes interesting to have a very long range UHF or VHF radios that can go hundreds of miles that can talk to the other unmanned systems. In a sense, you have established somewhat of a mesh network so these unmanned systems can sense what is in the immediate area. At some point, operators could put these radios on jetliners as well so they also have these sensing capabilities for another layer of safety and communication. In the future, this problem could potentially be solved by mandating transponders on all UAS platforms at a certain weight. Overall, the automation of the skies becomes a very real conversation now that unmanned systems are making their way into the commercial sector. We expect this to be a hot topic in the coming years and expect a greater collaborative effort across many companies and industries.