It looks inevitable that in the near future, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which have already risen to high prominence in the military sector, will become standard tools in the commercial sphere. Since the late 1980s, research into UAVs has grown worldwide. Initially, applications for the technology were largely military as the aircraft operate mostly outside of civilian airspace and do not have to comply with civil airspace standards and rules.

The phenomenal progress made in UAV technology, efficiency, range, size and payload in recent years has sparked enormous interest within commercial sectors such as mining and offshore. Despite this interest, adoption of the technology has been relatively slow. By far the biggest barrier to routine commercial flight missions by unmanned craft is a lack of regulatory guidance and standards necessary to allow UAVs to operate within civil airspace.

The relative low cost and simplicity of UAV design has resulted in a flood of vastly different models. Not every aircraft is built to a rigorous level of safety and often operators are untrained fliers, a serious issue when considering these aircraft share the same airspace as manned and passenger aircraft.

FAA sees safety first

“The biggest barrier to routine commercial flight missions by unmanned craft is a lack of regulatory guidance and standards.”

The official position of the US Federal Aviation Administration is safety first. According to the FAA, the design of many UAVs makes them difficult to see and, in the absence of adequate detect, sense and avoid technologies, the FAA’s chief concern is to address safety implications. Therefore, it requires UAV operators to obtain a certificate of authorisation based on principles that include using a defined airspace in coordination with air traffic control facilities, often under strict rules such as flying the aircraft in daylight only and maintaining visual contact at all times.

To address the ever-increasing demand for civil and commercial UAV certification and development, the FAA is working on guidance to increase the level of access to the National Airspace System, a process it has described as ‘long term’ and a ‘work in progress’.

For civil aircraft applications in particular, the FAA is currently only issuing special airworthiness certificates in the experimental category.

According to the official website, the FAA has only issued five experimental certificates for unmanned aircraft systems for the purposes of R&D, marketing surveys or crew training. The FAA also requires a pilot-in-command in control of the aircraft at all times and a observer to note the activity of the unmanned aircraft and surrounding airspace, either through line-of-sight on the ground or in the air by means of a chase aircraft.

While inherently sensible, this policy seriously limits the range of the UAV (also a problem with exploratory missions in the mining and offshore industries) and demands additional manpower and technology, which in turn raises costs.

EU air control

While the EU has placed a lack of safety standards as its main reason behind slow commercial adoption of UAVs, it has also identified the lack of airworthiness standards as the prime reason behind UAV makers not being able to design suitable systems. Lack of dedicated command and control frequencies and spectrum and bandwidth issues are also barriers to building an overall picture for manufacturers and users that is suitable across all EU countries.

A process of defining standards began in 2006, identifying funding for complementary and consistent initiatives as well as developing certified products and enabling standardisation as the main areas to be developed. The work builds on UAVNET, an 2001 initiative to advance the development of UAVs for civilian and commercial purposes in conjunction with the Joint Aviation Authorities / EUROCONTROL task force, the UAV Safety Issues for Civil Operations and the European Aviation Safety

“Although certified UAVs are rare, research and testing is booming at an exponential rate.”

The EU has since launched Air4All, a consortium working with the EDA, leading industry partners and the member states to develop a common strategy for the seamless integration of UAVs within general air traffic.

Air4All activities include the establishment of an industrial advisory integration team and the demonstration, evaluation and validation of regulatory requirements. Other activities include risk mitigation, harmonising standards and the establishment of the Air4All frequency group to answer the EDA request for UAV frequency allocation.

The mandate that all UAVs will eventually have to include complex voice communications, transponders, and sense and avoid systems has, however, ensured that progress has been slow.

Towards an unmanned horizon

Widespread adoption of UAVs in the offshore exploration industry hasn’t been as rapid as it could have been, not due to a lack of technology – the platforms certainly exist – but to a lack of recognised standards and protocols. But, as often is the case, laws are there to be broken and although certified UAVs are rare, research and testing is booming at an exponential rate.

The major challenge moving forwards will be for regulators such as the EU, FAA and other international bodies to match the march of technology with a sensible and safe regulatory overview that still leaves room for major progress and innovation.