To the casual observer, or viewer of network television news programs during the last decade or so, the mention of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or System (UAV/UAS) likely conjures up the term drone, and an image of a MQ-1 Predator aircraft: a tool developed by General Atomics and employed by the Air Force and CIA to carry out U.S. military objectives abroad. The merit of using UAVs to successfully achieve military and diplomatic objectives is the subject of much debate recently, focused mostly on the small subset of UAV functionality relating to the application of Hellfire missiles on undeserving recipients. Controversy aside, the Predator represents the culmination of cutting edge avionics and remote sensing technology that enables unprecedented surveillance and intelligence collection over broad, inaccessible areas, and facilitates the removal of humans from mundane or dangerous airborne operations. It is unfortunate that the utility of UAVs has been generally conflated to singular-functioning, militaristic combat drones. This misrepresentation overshadows the myriad benefits provided by these flexible remote sensing platforms, and clouds the promise presented by the integration of UAV technology into the domestic commercial market: an unprecedented boom in the availability of geospatial data and intelligence for civilian decision support applications.
Without much publicity, UAV technology originating from defense applications has been adopted by various organizations in the U.S. for non-military-related purposes in recent years. Unmanned fixed-wing and helicopter-like aircraft have hovered over wildfires to collect up-to-date information and assist firefighters; patrolled our national borders along inaccessible coastlines and vast desert expanses; and assisted law enforcement officials in operations that require persistent overhead surveillance. Besides using advanced unmanned aircraft technology to collect geospatial data and solve real-world problems, these UAV scenarios share another common trait: they are all technically illegal under current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations and, to operate legitimately, require a certificate of authorization (COA), or waiver, based on special consideration that qualifies the UAV mission as “in the public interest.” Based on a 2012 list of COA recipients recently published under a Freedom of Information Act request, it is clear that a plethora of organizations recognize the value of peaceful UAV applications, are undeterred by the current regulatory hoops, and are willing to commit effort and capital to remain at the forefront of a prospective domestic UAV industry.
Outside the United States, fewer regulations stand in the way of UAV use, and as a result, commercially-oriented UAVs in places like Canada and Europe can be readily found inspecting pipelines for leakage, conducting reconnaissance in emergency situations, or collecting imagery over inaccessible areas for conservation purposes. According to the Teal Group, the global UAV market is expected to nearly double over the coming decade and approach $12 billion in procurement expenditures. Although existing Federal Government regulations continue to pose a stiff headwind against U.S. involvement in the diversified global UAV industry, forward momentum is evident.
The Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2012 mandated the agency to safely integrate commercial UAVs in the national airspace by 2015. The FAA, in conjunction with other interested agencies such as NASA and the Department of Homeland Security, is now carefully assessing the implications of UAV technology deployment to the safety of the National Airspace System (NAS) it is charged to maintain. A notable component of this safety investigation will involve the establishment of six active UAV test sites at various locations throughout the country. By default, these sites, and the areas around them, will be magnets for cutting edge UAV technology and support services–innovation centers that will drive future commercial UAV applications. On February 14th, the FAA made a key announcement marking the beginning of the test site selection process. Based on the noticeable uptick in UAV-related content appearing on various media outlets since, developments in the domestic UAV industry are attracting the attention of a larger audience.
Commercial UAV proliferation in the U.S. in the next few years will happen. In the meantime, there will surely be heated debates regarding privacy and security concerns, but there’s no need to panic. Contrary to some opinions amplified by mass media outlets, the privacy, safety, and liberty of United States citizens won’t be extinguished by lethal Predator aircraft in the year 2015. For those of us in the geospatial industry, the impact of UAVs in the domestic U.S. airspace is clear: the ability to easily and economically deploy remote sensing platforms will create a greater diversity and volume of available geospatial data for analysis. Having more data with which to gain a better understanding the world around us–and our impact on it–is an indisputable societal benefit.