AUVSI: Operating Rules Are The Linchpin For UAV Growth

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Although the FAA said last week that detailed rules for operating unmanned aircraft systems in regulated airspace may be seven years off, the UAV industry appears bullish that it will happen sooner. Michael Toscano, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, told AVweb Monday in Orlando, Fla., that he's optimistic that operators of small drones will have a realistic set of flight guidelines long before 2020 or 2021. But he's skittish about going on record as to when that will happen.

"That is the linchpin that will open the doors and allow us to fly in a regulatory manner," Toscano said in Orlando, where the AUVSI conference and trade show opened on Monday. "It's a key piece. Because there are people out there who are now starting to fly and they're not abiding by the rules and the laws. But there are aspects you have to be concerned about," he said.

In Monday's technical sessions at AUVSI, much of the discussion centered on how UAVs will be integrated into the National Airspace System, flying near manned aircraft of all kinds. The FAA is just beginning to approve centers for UAV testing, and elsewhere in the world, integration tests are well underway, especially in Europe. A hot topic continues to be FAA enforcement against "smalls," the under-55-pound UAVs being used, often illegally, for all sorts of commercial operations from real estate marketing to crop monitoring. The FAA currently forbids such operation without a case-by-case certificate of authorization. Hobbyist use of UAVs and/or RC aircraft remains unregulated by the FAA.

Toscano says both the FAA and the industry have a host of concerns related to operator qualifications, frequency spectrum issues and so-called detection and avoidance technology to prevent UAVs from colliding with manned aircraft. Is AUVSI pushing for licensing of operators and certification of aircraft?

"There has to be something. There has to be some qualification for the operator and there has to be some qualification to the platform to make sure that it's safe. Now what that is, I think we have some ability to determine that as we go on," Toscano said. The association is developing guidelines of its own that may very well mirror those used by the RC aircraft industry, which is essentially self-regulating.

"I think we do this as a crawl, walk, run and smalls offer us an opportunity to gather a lot of good information. But you talk about flying where manned systems fly, then the two biggest concerns are you have to be able to see and avoid and, in the case of an unmanned system, sense and avoid. It's all about safety," Toscano said. AUVSI will continue through this week and AVweb will provide ongoing coverage.