Insitu to Launch First Commercial Unmanned Aircraft

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.”