Looking Forward: The Future of Unmanned Aviation

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Remotely-piloted and fully autonomous aircraft are transforming civil, commercial, and military aviation. Even with its recent success, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry is poised for exponential growth. Let’s review some events from 2023 that showcase the momentum carrying the UAV industry into the future.

Lessons from Ukraine: the quality of mass

The US Department of Defense continues to develop a diverse range of unmanned combat air vehicles. These range from the evolutions of today’s MQ-9 Reaper to loitering munitions like the AeroVironment Switchblade. More advanced collaborative combat aircraft will operate alongside future piloted aircraft like the B-21 Raider.

However, Ukraine’s defense against Russian invaders has shown that warfighters will need more than the traditional focus on exquisite, highly capable platforms can deliver. Ukraine has imported thousands of drones and developed a domestic drone manufacturing industry to support its frontline troops. Modified commercial drones provide reconnaissance data. Home-grown loitering munitions strike behind Russian lines while long-range autonomous combat vehicles reach targets on the Crimean Peninsula as well as beyond the Russian border.

Western military strategists have seen UAVs’ essential roles in Ukraine’s defense. In August 2023, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks announced the replicator initiative, an agile approach to the development and high-volume production of autonomous vehicles. The initiative aims to have thousands of autonomous systems across multiple domains ready to deploy by early 2025.

Transforming the DoD’s slow procurement process would, in Secretary Hicks’ words, “take all-domain, attritable autonomy to the next level: to produce and deliver capabilities to warfighters at the volume and velocity required to deter aggression, or win if we’re forced to fight.”

Regulating UAVs in civil airspaces

Despite similarly rapid innovation, commercial drone applications have yet to reach the same inflection point as combat UAVs. The most significant limiting factor remains regulators’ methodical (some say glacial) pace.

For example, the US Federal Aviation Administration has yet to issue rules regarding UAV operations beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems BVLOS Aviation Rulemaking Committee issued its final report in March 2022. The agency issued a request for comments a year later. Yet, FAA officials do not expect to publish BVLOS rules until sometime in 2025.

Without formal rules in place, UAV operators must apply for waivers to existing regulations designed for piloted aircraft. FAA streamlined the waiver process in September 2023 when it issued Zipline the first summary grant of a BVLOS waiver. Future applicants may base their waiver requests on existing grants, allowing FAA officials to expedite the approvals.

Although the process is slow, these and other UAV regulations must protect the safety of people in the air and on the ground. The ultimate solution is a system for uncrewed traffic management (UTM). A crucial first step towards that future, installing remote identification (RID) beacons in unpiloted vehicles, has faced repeated delays. FAA’s rule required the installation of RID beacons by manufacturers or operators by September 16, 2023. Three days before its deadline, the FAA gave drone operators a six-month reprieve since supply chain issues had made procuring RID devices challenging.

However, an end-to-end UTM system is still many years away. The FAA submitted to Congress in mid-2023 its UTM Implementation Plan, which describes the technological and policy gaps that must be closed before fully integrating UAVs into the national airspace.

Commercial applications from drone deliveries to drones-as-a-service

Despite regulators’ careful approach, commercial drone adoption continues to grow. Zipline’s BVLOS waiver will allow the company to offer widespread delivery services in the United States. Zipline has already made 750,000 accident-free commercial deliveries in Europe and Africa, including the delivery of medical supplies to remote locations. The waiver eliminates the need for human spotters along Zipline flight paths, opening the doors to last-mile operations in late 2023.

Less constrained by BVLOS and other regulations, the energy industry remains the largest commercial adopter of UAVs, with an estimated global market size of $4.66 billion. These companies use drones to inspect powerlines, pipelines, and other critical infrastructure more safely and economically.

Drones-as-a-Service (DaaS) is an emerging business model that will accelerate commercial UAV adoption. Although low-cost consumer and commercial drones can quickly get affordable pilot projects off the ground, scaling UAV infrastructure and operations is expensive. DaaS providers promise to flip these significant capital investments into more palatable operational expenses. Providers employ pilots, maintain UAV fleets, and clear the regulatory hurdles. Freed from the complexity of in-house drone programs, DaaS customers contract with these providers to collect imaging, LiDAR, and other data to improve their operations.

In early 2023, the Port of Antwerp-Bruges announced a DaaS partnership that will use UAVs to support security, berth management, and environmental monitoring across the port’s 120 km2 area. In addition to being an industry first at this scale, the project is one of the first BVLOS programs approved under the European Union Aviation Safety Agency’s U-space regulations for UAVs in EU airspace.

Still waiting for autonomous air taxis

Steep technical, financial, and regulatory challenges still face advanced air mobility (AAM) startups. FAA’s near-term implementation plan focuses on new types of piloted aircraft offering helicopter-like services under existing regulations — getting the technology, safety, and infrastructure right for piloted aircraft types is hard enough. The FAA’s medium-term plans will authorize remotely-piloted and autonomous vehicles within formally defined Cooperative Areas. Replacing pilots with autonomous passenger-carrying systems will have to wait for a fully mature AAM ecosystem.

Worldwide, several piloted AAM vehicles are nearing type certification. Germany’s Volocopter anticipates certification of its single-passenger P1 in 2024. California-based Joby Aviation rolled out its first production aircraft in mid-2023 for certification testing. Deliveries of its four-passenger vehicle could begin as early as 2024.

On the autonomous front, China’s EHang expects certification of its two-passenger EH216-S as early as 2023. Boeing-owned Wisk Aero began production of its four-passenger autonomous air taxi, but demonstrating to the FAA that autonomous flying is safe and reliable will take time.

Streamlining UAV development with CAST GNSS/INS simulator solutions

An important element of UAV type certification is demonstrating a new vehicle’s ability to navigate autonomously through real-world conditions. However, affordable live-sky testing can only validate designs within a narrow range of conditions.

CAST Navigation GNSS/INS simulators let development teams test UAV navigation performance anywhere in the world under any conditions. Our modular solutions support projects ranging from INS integration testing to the simulation of multi-vehicle maneuvers. Contact CAST Navigation’s GNSS/INS simulation experts to learn more about streamlining UAV development projects.

September 28, 2023