Friday, January 3, 2014

Air Freight Delivery Drones Pick Up Legs from the FAA

Six Operating Sites Selected to Test Technology
Shipping News Feature

US – Despite our thinly veiled cynicism when we reported the testing of drones for the delivery of express cargo in small quantities, based upon the obvious problems of having relatively uncontrolled pieces of freight buzzing around in urban airspace, it seems some see the developing technology as a real investment opportunity. No matter it seems the potential accident insurance problems and obvious theft scenarios with cargo carried being presumably relatively high value, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) intends to release shortly a regulation covering the increased use of privately operated drones.

This move follows the granting of permission by the FAA for six chosen schemes to operate drone sites to test potential applications and operating protocols. The six were picked from twenty five applicants all vying to be in on the ground floor of a business sector enthusiasts say will be a ‘multi -billion dollar industry’. On November 7 the FAA issued its ‘Drone Roadmap’ to examine the integration of the unmanned craft into the civil aviation system and several of the chosen six are looking at ways to approach this. This five-year roadmap, as required by the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA), is intended to guide aviation stakeholders in understanding operational goals and aviation safety and air traffic challenges when considering future investments.

The timeframes used in the roadmap are defined in the President’s National Aeronautics Research and Development Plan, which specifies less than 5 years as the near-term, 5-10 years as the mid-term, and greater than 10 years as the long-term, with the long term defined as the period 2022-26, consistent with the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) National Airspace System Concept of Operations and Vision for the Future of Aviation and NextGen Air Transportation System Integrated Plan.

The six centres selected for examining and testing unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) research and suitable sites come after proposals were received from twenty five groups spread across twenty four states and made for a rigorous selection process taking ten months. In selecting the six test site operators, the FAA considered geography, climate, location of ground infrastructure, research needs, airspace use, safety, aviation experience and risk. In totality, these six test applications achieve cross-country geographic and climatic diversity and help the FAA meet its UAS research needs. Details of the successful candidates are as follows:

• University of Alaska. The University of Alaska proposal contained a diverse set of test site range locations in seven climatic zones as well as geographic diversity with test site range locations in Hawaii and Oregon. The research plan includes the development of a set of standards for unmanned aircraft categories, state monitoring and navigation. Alaska also plans to work on safety standards for UAS operations.

• State of Nevada. Nevada’s project objectives concentrate on UAS standards and operations as well as operator standards and certification requirements. The applicant’s research will also include a concentrated look at how air traffic control procedures will evolve with the introduction of UAS into the civil environment and how these aircraft will be integrated with NextGen. Nevada’s selection contributes to geographic and climatic diversity.

• New York’s Griffiss International Airport. Griffiss International plans to work on developing test and evaluation as well as verification and validation processes under FAA safety oversight. The applicant also plans to focus its research on sense and avoid capabilities for UAS and its sites will aid in researching the complexities of integrating UAS into the congested, northeast airspace.

• North Dakota Department of Commerce. North Dakota plans to develop UAS airworthiness essential data and validate high reliability link technology. This applicant will also conduct human factors research. North Dakota’s application was the only one to offer a test range in the Temperate (continental) climate zone and included a variety of different airspace which will benefit multiple users.

• Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi. Texas A&M plans to develop system safety requirements for UAS vehicles and operations with a goal of protocols and procedures for airworthiness testing. The selection of Texas A&M contributes to geographic and climactic diversity.

• Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). Virginia Tech plans to conduct UAS failure mode testing and identify and evaluate operational and technical risks areas. This proposal includes test site range locations in both Virginia and New Jersey.

The complexity of the FAA’s own brief make this a difficult subject to bring to fruition. Despite expressing confidence that the six operators will cover all the ground necessary to make drone transport suitable for a normal civilian environment the FAA needs to ensure its research objectives are achieved in full and these cover matters as diverse as System Safety & Data Gathering, Aircraft Certification, Command & Control Link Issues, Control Station Layout & Certification, Ground & Airborne Sense & Avoid, and Impact upon the Environment.

Under the current law, test site operations will continue until at least February 13, 2017 and all six chosen operators have to make provision to allow free access to any interested parties wishing to make use of the facilities. The FAA is not funding any of the research but will coordinate matters to ensure any pilots operating in the test areas are aware when operations are taking place.

Photo: Not just the US! Our previous story mentioned an Australian firm testing the technology and this shot is from a test by SF Express, Shenzhen, China with a ‘copter that can carry up to 3 kilogrammes of freight.