By MICHAEL TOSCANO
From Amazon to Google to Domino’s Pizza, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) have been drawing significant attention in recent months. Amazon plans to launch a “Prime Air” delivery system, while Google aims to use UAS to bring internet to the developing world. Before we know it, even your pizza may be delivered by UAS.
This potential commercial use of UAS underscores how the innovative technology will transform the way industries operate. UAS can do everything from advancing scientific research and responding to natural disasters to locating missing persons and helping to fight wildfires. With safe and responsible integration, unmanned aircraft demonstrate tremendous potential while helping boost local economies and creating jobs.
According to a recent economic report from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the expansion of UAS technology will create more than 100,000 jobs nationwide and generate more than $82 billion in economic impact in the first decade following integration, with more than 70,000 jobs in the first three years.
In addition to the economic impact, there are numerous societal benefits to UAS. The technology is already demonstrating its value across the nation under limited circumstances, from monitoring disease in agricultural fields to collecting data during hurricanes. Further testing of this technology will soon help search and rescue operations, the surveying of critical infrastructure, such as highways, bridges and dams, and scientific research of everything from volcanoes to wildlife.
Many different industries, including agriculture, oil and gas and even the movie industry, want to eventually deploy UAS for commercial purposes. With the ability to fly in dangerous or extreme conditions and for lower costs than manned flight, UAS are often a safer and less expensive alternative for many businesses that currently rely on manned aircraft.
At the moment, however, widespread use of UAS in the United States will have to wait. The FAA is still devising guidelines for the civil and commercial use of UAS, which will not be complete until 2015. But, we have already seen examples of their viability.
UAS were utilized by firefighters in California earlier this year to monitor hot spots to contain a wildfire and keep firefighters safe. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA have used UAS to more effectively perform scientific research and reach dangerous or inaccessible areas. Even oil companies are testing UAS. In the Arctic, UAS have proven critical to efficiently and effectively monitoring oil pipelines.
In particular, UAS are going to have a significant and lasting impact on agriculture, with the ability to save farmers millions of dollars in time and resources. AUVSI’s economic report indicates that 80% of the UAS market in the U.S. will be in agriculture. Japan is already using UAS for precision agriculture. For example, more than 90% of Japan’s aerial crop spraying is done with unmanned aircraft systems.
UAS can help keep our agricultural industry more competitive by providing farmers with a cost-efficient way to spray for pests and diseases, manage their crops, and check for signs of drought and disease. UAS can also help farmers by providing an aerial view of their crops, helping them to better identify pest infestations, drought stress or weeds, at a fraction of the cost of manned aircraft.
While this technology holds plenty of promise, we have a responsibility to ensure it is used safely and responsibly, and with respect to the rights we, as Americans, deeply cherish. In fact, the approach that the FAA has taken toward integration has reflected how seriously it takes the issue of safety.
In late 2013, the FAA took important steps to advance integration and set 2014 as an exciting year for the UAS industry by establishing six test sites around the country for the testing and development of the technology. The six sites include the University of Alaska, State of Nevada, New York’s Griffiss International Airport, North Dakota Department of Commerce, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). Four of the six have already begun operations.
These test sites will research the complexities of integrating UAS into congested airspace, including the development of system safety requirements, implementation of operator standards and certification requirements, and a concentrated look how air traffic control procedures will evolve with the introduction of UAS into the civil environment.
They will also put an emphasis on validating the reliability of link technology, and, importantly, honing sense and avoid capabilities.
These test sites will be crucial for establishing a framework for UAS operations and will help establish rules for the commercial use of UAS so that farmers, journalists and many others can take advantage of this innovative technology in their businesses.
It is an exciting time for the UAS industry. As we move towards full integration, many industries will soon be able to use UAS to save time, save money, and, most importantly, save lives.
Michael Toscano is the president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International, the industry’s leading trade organization.