Aerospace, defense, and government services (ADG) companies are not new to game-changing technology innovations. It is therefore no surprise that a number of ADG companies are early investors in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) technologies that many predict will have a significant economic impact in 2017 and beyond. The estimated economic impact of UAS varies, but the numbers are all large. A recent Teal Group Corporation study estimates civil UAS as a US$2.6bn market in 2016, quadrupling to US$10.9bn by 2025.1 A recent PwC report estimates the global market value of UAS-powered solutions at over US$127bn.2 In the United States, assuming the regulatory framework keeps pace, some predict that the domestic UAS industry will grow within the next decade to be a US$82bn market while creating more than 100,000 new jobs.3 The FAA also recently estimated that by 2020 there will be 11 million commercial UAS sold in the U.S.4 Given the many benefits of this technology, the broad integration of UAS into the National Airspace represents an exciting opportunity for ADG companies. The below presents the top UAS issues likely to impact the ADG industry in 2017.

FAA Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for UAS flights over people

In August 2016, the FAA’s new Small UAS Rule (14 CFR Part 107) broadly authorizing commercial UAS operations became effective. However, with limited exception, the rule does not permit flights over people. This restriction imposes significant hurdles on a wide range of commercial UAS applications, especially those that typically need to occur in more urban and suburban environments. This includes media and newsgathering activities, real estate, infrastructure inspection and, someday, package delivery which require the flexibility to operate over people. In February 2016, the Department of Transportation (DOT) created a Micro-UAS Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) to make recommendations to the FAA for crafting a rule to allow certain UAS to operate over people, and in April 2016 the FAA publicly released the ARC’s final recommendations report. The FAA’s NPRM for flights over people has been delayed due to inter-agency concerns.

FAA NPRM for expanded UAS operations

Part 107 contains several key operational restrictions, including a prohibition on operating UAS at night, prohibitions on operations from a moving vehicle, and a prohibition on a remote pilot operating more than one UAS simultaneously. Most notably, Part 107 also prohibits a UAS from being operated beyond the visual line of sight of the remote pilot. This requires the remote pilot to be able to see the unmanned aircraft throughout the entire flight with no visual aid. In practice, this restriction limits the geographic range of most UAS operations to within a mile or two of the remote pilot. This restriction, in combination with the other operational restrictions in Part 107, makes it difficult or impossible to use UAS for some of the most promising commercial use cases, including inspections and patrols of powerlines, pipelines, and railways; package delivery; and search and rescue operations. The FAA’s expanded operations rule is expected to loosen these operational restrictions in some scenarios, and in doing so, will open the door to new and innovative UAS use cases that are simply impossible or impractical under the current regulatory frame work. The NPRM is expected to be published in the first or second quarter of 2017.

Implementation of UAS provisions in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2016

The FAA Reauthorization Act, signed into law on 15 July 2016, contains several provisions directly affecting the commercial UAS industry, including beyond visual line-of-sight flight, UAS delivery operations, federal authority to regulate UAS, streamlined certification centered on risk-based classifications, and establishment of a UAS traffic management pilot program. The implementation and timing of those provisions will have implications for UAS operators and manufacturers.

FAA Reauthorization in 2017

The 2016 Reauthorization Act will expire in September 2017, so Congress must once again reauthorize the FAA this year. This process presents another opportunity to attach provisions that will expand or restrict UAS operations.Many UAS stakeholders will likely try to advance their views and positions through the FAA reauthorization process, particularly in light of the experience operating under the current Small UAS Rule (Part 107) and the new Administration.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management (UTM)

Building on its legacy of work in air traffic management for manned aircraft, NASA is researching prototype technologies for a UAS traffic management system that could develop airspace integration requirements for enabling safe, efficient low-altitude operations. An infrastructure to safely manage widespread use of low-altitude airspace and UAS operations is necessary to realize the many benefits of commercial UAS applications, and may rely on airspace design, dynamic geofencing, congestion management, and terrain avoidance technologies. Working alongside many committed government, industry, and academic partners, NASA is leading the research, development, and testing that is taking place in a series of activities called Technology Capability Levels (TCL), each increasing in complexity. UTM TCL2, which was completed in October 2016, focused on beyond visual line-of-sight operations in sparsely populated areas. In the coming year, NASA will leverage TCL2 results and focus on testing technologies that maintain safe spacing between cooperative (responsive) and non-cooperative (non-responsive) UAS over moderately populated areas.

Counter-UAS systems to mitigate UAS threats

Security and privacy concerns related to unauthorized “rogue” UAS flights over government, critical infrastructure, and other sensitive facilities has prompted the development of a variety of counter-UAS systems designed to detect, identify, and track rogue UAS. Many of these systems also provide the ability to mitigate the threat by interfering with, hacking (i.e. jamming), capturing, or destroying rogue UAS in flight. Most agree that the rapid proliferation of small and medium-sized UAS poses an evolving security threat that needs to be addressed. Currently, Title 18 of the United States Code, the Communications Act of 1934, and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations make it illegal to deploy most counter-UAS systems or creates liability when they are used. Policy solutions designed to address the need for counter-UAS technologies may be on the horizon and will require extensive interagency cooperation.

Conclusion

UAS continues to present very significant opportunities for ADG companies. The regulatory framework, however, continues to have difficulty keeping pace with UAS technology and uses. Significant hurdles remain to deploying UAS for many promising commercial uses. As the regulatory framework continues to evolve it is our hope that operational restrictions will continue to be relaxed in 2017. Given the many benefits of this technology, our ADG team will be closely monitoring these developments throughout the year.