The very first U.S. commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) flight is scheduled to occur this month in support of oil operations off the coast of Alaska. In July 2013, the FAA issued Restricted Category Type Certificates for two small UAS (“sUAS,” which weigh under 55 pounds): the AeroVironment Puma AE, and the Insitu (Boeing) ScanEagle X200. The type certificates authorize flights under Federal Aviation Regulations Part 91 for aerial survey. The first commercial flight is expected to be a ScanEagle launched off a ConocoPhillips vessel. In related news, the FAA also announced that, after two years of delay, it expects to publish the draft regulation for operating sUAS by the end of 2013.
The technology and utility of UAS has matured enough to support an eager commercial industry, including here in the Midwest. For example, Indiana and Ohio (in partnership), Missouri, Minnesota, Michigan, and North Dakota are among the states vying to be selected by the FAA as one of the six sites to test integration of UAS into the National Airspace System (NAS). Indiana State University is one of several universities that have established unmanned systems academic programs. In light of the dawn of the commercial UAS industry and ongoing wrestling with privacy, safety and other issues around it, it is interesting to consider just how long the idea of UAS has been around.
Although there are earlier milestones, one notable development was by the prolific inventor Nikola Tesla. Tesla was awarded the earliest U.S. patent on a wirelessly controlled unmanned system, a boat. U.S. Patent 613,809, titled Method of an Apparatus for Controlling Mechanism of Moving Vessels or Vehicles, was issued to Tesla in 1898. In less-developed terminology than we now use, Tesla described the transmission of electromagnetic waves (Marconi and others were just ahead in developing rudimentary wireless communication), a few basic types of receivers, and servo mechanisms that together could provide remote control and actuation of a vessel’s engine and steering. Tesla called the concept “teleautomaton,” and even demonstrated it at Madison Square Garden’s Electrical Exhibition in 1898.
The U.S. military services are often early developers and adopters of technology, so it is not surprising that experimental ancestors of modern day smart bombs date back to WWI and were used in combat as early as WWII. Interestingly, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory has been continuously experimenting with various UAS concepts and systems since its inception in 1923—90 years of progress on a concept scarcely known to the public just 10 years ago.
The rapid acceleration of UAS use by the U.S. government and recent public disclosures about UAS use in key military operations seems to have helped capture the imagination of the public and foster market interest in commercial UAS applications. Currently there are 327 nonmilitary UAS actively operated by public entities in the US. Now that the prohibitions on commercial use are being lifted with integration into the NAS planned for as early as 2015, the FAA estimates 7,500 commercial sUAS will be operating within five years. Hopefully the lag we are experiencing in proving and accepting solutions to privacy, NAS integration, and other concerns is only a transient issue, because clearly the 100 plus years of technological development is far ahead of and ready to support the full commercial potential of UAS.