Insitu is planning to launch the first U.S. commercial unmanned aircraft system operation following receipt of FAA type certification for its ScanEagle UAS on July 19. No details are available yet, but the operation is expected to be in the Arctic.
Restricted-category type certifications for the 44-lb., gasoline-powered ScanEagle and the 13.4-lb., battery-powered AeroVironment Puma AE are the first to be issued by FAA under Part 21.25 of the federal aviation regulations.
“Type certification allows us to go beyond the norm, which is a UAS operating under a certificate of authorization as a public aircraft, and is the basis for commercial operations,” says Paul McDuffee, vice president of government relations and strategy for Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary.
The AeroVironment Puma and Insitu ScanEagle were selected as pathfinder programs for restricted-category certification under FAA’s existing Part 21.25 rules. Insitu submitted its application in January, and the process went “astoundingly fast,” he says.
“To the FAA’s credit, they have been really willing to work with industry to come up with solutions for adopting and adapting regulations intended for manned aircraft and applying them to unmanned,” McDuffee says. “It has been very cooperative.”
Restricted category allows type certification of an airframe for a specific purpose, in this case aerial surveillance. Key to the process is a “carve out” in Part 21.25 for certification of systems previously accepted for use by the Defense Department, which applies to both the Puma and ScanEagle.
“The aircraft certificated must be in the configuration accepted by the Defense Department, so carefully maintaining the configuration is key,” he says. “ScanEagle has to be certified as is, to be transferred to commercial use as used by the military customer.”
In addition to type certification, the FAA has awarded Insitu operational approval for the commercial operation planned, which involves flights “beyond visual line of sight,” McDuffee says, to be conducted as a service by Insitu in behalf of an unnamed customer.
The first commercial UAS operation is not being revealed yet, but both the ScanEagle and Puma certificates include in the flight limitation: “Only for operation in the designated Arctic area as defined by the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.”
Under the Act, Congress directed the FAA to develop an Arctic UAS operation plan and designate permanent areas where small unmanned aircraft may operate 24 hr. a day for research and commercial purposes.
ScanEagle operations will take place “in a very remote location,” McDuffee says. “That is the key to risk mitigation. We will be operating [in] a block of airspace that is essentially sterile, where the likelihood of an encounter with an uncooperative aircraft is zero.”
The final step that remains, “just prior to commercial operations,” McDuffee says, is for the FAA to issue an airworthiness certificate for the complete ScanEagle system, including air vehicle, ground control station and launch and recovery equipment.
“Once it is complete and in one place, the FAA will take a look at the system to certify it is airworthy,” he says. The date for that final approval step still has to be determined, but will be “sometime between now and 1 October.”
Safety, security problems may delay drones’ access to US skies, gov’t watchdog says
By Associated Press, Published: September 18
WASHINGTON — Difficult to resolve safety and security obstacles may prevent the Federal Aviation Administration from meeting a deadline to allow civilian drones routine access to U.S. skies within three years, according to a report released Tuesday by a government watchdog.
The FAA is under pressure from Congress, industry and other government agencies to open domestic airspace to unmanned aircraft so that they can perform a seemingly endless list of tasks that are too expensive or too risky to use aircraft with human pilots. The biggest market is expected to be state and local police departments. Others interested in using drones are farmers who want help monitoring their thirsty crops, oil companies wanting to keep an eye on pipelines and even real estate agents needing to monitor their properties.
Industry forecasts have pegged the potential worldwide market for commercial and military drones at nearly $90 billion over the next decade, more than half of that in the U.S.
The FAA has already missed one deadline in a law passed by Congress last February requiring the agency to develop a system for civilian drones to fly safely in airspace, the report by the General Accounting Office said. The law requires FAA to fully integrate drones into airspace currently limited to manned aircraft by Sept. 30, 2015, and sets several interim deadlines for the agency to meet before then.
While FAA has made some progress in meeting those deadlines, “it is uncertain when the national airspace system will be prepared to accommodate” civilian drones, the report said.
For example, the law required the agency to establish a program by last month to allow unmanned aircraft access to the national airspace at six test sites around the country. The GAO said FAA is working on setting up the program, but has been delayed by concerns that data collected by the drones may violate people’s privacy.
FAA officials have also been working for the past five years on regulations to allow commercial use of small drones, which are generally defined as weighing less than 55-pounds and flying at altitudes under 4,000 feet. The agency has drafted regulations that were initially expected to be published late last year, but have been repeatedly delayed. FAA officials told the GAO that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s office is still reviewing the draft. Proposed regulations now aren’t expected to be published until next year, and it’s unclear if the agency will be able to meet Congress’ deadline August 2014 for the publication of final regulations, the report said.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the agency “is working to ensure the safe integration of unmanned aircraft,” including “gaining a better understanding of operational issues, such as training requirements, operational specifications and technology considerations.”
The agency is also trying to establish the six test sites “as quickly as possible” while addressing privacy concerns, she said in an email.
Among other difficult-to-resolve issues is how to ensure drones won’t collide with manned aircraft since there isn’t a pilot on board that can “see and avoid” another plane, the report said. The potential for interruption in signals used by operators on the ground to control drones is also a concern.