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If the UAS industry thought the FAA might be about to relax its stance toward enforcement actions against illegal drone operations, the FAA on Tuesday removed any doubt. The FAA’s Jim Williams, who heads the agency’s unmanned aircraft integration office, told several hundred attendees at the AVUSI show in Orlando that the agency will continue to pursue enforcement against operators flying UAVs without the required certificates of authorization. But, Williams said, the agency has and will continue to pursue a progressive approach to enforcement, rather than seeking civil penalties against UAS operators as the first step.

In an hour-long presentation and question-and-answer session to an audience mostly composed of UAS industry professionals, Williams showed a video of recent case in Virginia where a quadcopter went out of control and crashed into a crowd, causing minor injuries. In support of the need for regulation, Williams claimed that the Bull Run, Va., incident was by no means an isolated occurrence.

He also reviewed what he called a near collision between an airliner and an unidentified UAV near Tallahassee in March. However, details of that incident remain sketchy and neither the type of UAV involved nor the operator have been identified. Nonetheless, said Williams, these incidents indicate that unauthorized and uncontrolled flight of UAVs represent serious risk to manned aircraft and people and property on the ground.

Currently, the FAA exercises no authority over remotely piloted aircraft—including RC aircraft—operated recreationally below 400 feet AGL. However, it prohibits the commercial use of such aircraft at any altitude without a so-called COA or certificate of authorization, which are approved on a case-by-case basis. The FAA has pursued actions against UAV operators ignoring this prohibition, including one much-discussed enforcement action in which it was slapped down by an NTSB administrative law judge. The Pirker case has become a cause célèbre among would-be UAV operators who are ready to launch commercial photo, film and survey operations.

After he flew a drone without approval—recklessly and carelessly, the FAA claimed—the agency sought to fine Raphael Pirker $10,000. But an administrative law judge threw the case out, ruling that the FAA had no authority over small, unmanned aircraft. The FAA has appealed the decision, but Williams insists that the FAA has the authority to regulate all UAVs from the surface upward. He said media coverage of the Pirker case has given the public the misimpression that the FAA lacks regulatory authority.

During a wide-ranging discussion, Williams was asked when the agency will issue regulations for operation of so-called small UAVs, under 55 pounds. Under congressional mandate, those rules were supposed to be in place by next year, but Williams said the NPRM won’t appear until the end of this year and will be at least another 18 months after that before final rules are in place.

“Most people are interested in operating within the rules,” Williams said, while conceding that at least some of the UAV operators counseled or advised about illegal operations by the FAA simply have no knowledge of the FARs at all. Currently, operators are allowed to request specific waivers (COAs) for defined operations and Williams said the FAA has been talking directly to the film industry and pipeline and power inspection interests about specific waivers or rules for their operations. When asked if the agency if would streamline the COA process, Williams said it has no plans to do so. “It’s an interim process. Ultimately, we want to have a rule you can comply with so you won’t need a COA,” he said.

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.

Just as a combination of radar, transponders and active traffic systems improved flight safety for manned aircraft, the UAS industry may benefit from different twists on the same technology. At the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International show in Orlando this week, General Atomics, the maker of the Predator UAS, explained its novel approach to the so-called sense-and-avoid or detect-and-avoid challenge for drones that will help them blend into the National Airspace System safely.

The company has developed a technology it calls Due Regard Radar that’s capable of actively detecting aircraft as small as ultralights and relaying track data to an operator who can then fly avoidance maneuvers. The system will eventually be capable of autonomous avoidance in the event of loss of link, a not uncommon occurrence in world of remotely piloted aircraft. According to General Atomics’ Satish Krishnan, DRR has been under development since 2011 and will be ready for fielding as soon as next year.

At a technical session at the AUVSI show in Orlando, Krishnan explained that DRR relies on an active electronic scanned antenna (AESA) that requires no mechanical sweep to detect targets and can actually be incorporated into the aircraft structure as a conformal device. The radar is designed to be forward looking, detecting potential threats in front of the aircraft, but not behind it. It uses a fusion engine to combine detection and track data from other sources, including ADS-B and TCAS-type data, to determine which target track is most reliable and then display this for the operator to use as the basis for avoidance. Although the system is intended for UAVs the size of the Predator, Krishnan said it can probably be miniaturized for smaller aircraft. General Atomics has been intensively testing DRR with manned aircraft hosts and targets for the past two years and believes the technology is ready to be rolled out. It’s designed to work equally well with “co-operative” aircraft equipped with ADS-B, transponders or TCAS as well as “un-cooperative” aircraft that have none of those.

Meanwhile, in Europe, a consortium of companies that includes the French avionics manufacturer, Sagem and Rockwell Collins France, has developed a novel UAS sense-and-avoid system that uses both electronic signatures and a forward looking infrared camera for visual detection of targets. The technology is part of a research project called Operational Demonstration of RPAS in the European Airspace (ODREA) and its goal is to show that remotely piloted aircraft can operate safely in controlled airspace and be integrated into a moderately sized commercial airport. Like General Atomics’ DRR, the ODREA RPAS uses a fusion engine to analyze multiple track data to calculate the best avoidance strategies. For more, see the project’s website at Odrea.org.

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The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International opened its annual conference and show this week in Orlando.  AVweb was there and spoke to AVUSI president Michael Toscano about the state of the industry.

At the Association for Unmanned Vehicles International show in Orlando this week, dozens of UAV companies are displaying the latest in drone technology.  In this exclusive AVweb video, Prioria's Derek Lyons shows us a cool one — a carbon-fiber bird called the Maveric.

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Defense contractors are investing heavily in politicians as a means of stemming looming cuts to the military. Bloomberg is reporting that political contributions by the top ten contractors went up by 29 percent in advance of the 2014 midterm congressional elections over the same period in 2012. The next crop of politicians will preside over the implementation of more than $1 trillion in defense spending reductions over the next 10 years and the companies are hoping to "buy back congresspeople," in the words of contracting consultant Mark Amtower. "They'll spend whatever it takes to stifle this trend," he told Bloomberg. A preview of the kind of political wrangling that might be on the horizon is playing out in Washington as the fate of the Air Force's fleet of A-10 aircraft is debated. 

Last week the House Armed Services Committee voted to cut other sections of the defense budget to save the ground attack aircraft. But now the committee's Senate counterpart says it will reject that approach because it violates various procedures for moving money around. However, it seems likely the A-10 fleet will be saved after all because the Senate committee also supports preserving it. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate committee, said another way will have to be found to keep the Warthogs from being mothballed. The Air Force wants to get rid of the aircraft to allocate its diminishing budget to other programs.

Satellite-communications company Inmarsat has offered to provide airlines with free global tracking service over its network, the company announced on Monday. "This service is being offered to all 11,000 commercial passenger aircraft, which are already equipped with an Inmarsat satellite connection, virtually 100 percent of the world's long-haul commercial fleet," the company said. The offer aims to prevent another massive search like the one still ongoing for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. The company made the announcement as the International Civil Aviation Organization opened a meeting in Montreal to examine the state of global airline-flight tracking.

Inmarsat said in addition to the free tracking service, it will also offer premium services, including an enhanced position-reporting facility to support reduced in-flight aircraft separation, and a "black box in the cloud" service that could transmit information from the flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder. Providing the free tracking would cost Inmarsat about $3 million per year, according to the BBC, but the premium services could recoup those costs. The company already relays all distress calls from ships at sea, free of charge. Search teams are continuing to work in the Indian Ocean, but it's expected to take up to a year to search the suspected crash area for the missing Malaysian airplane.

SyberJet, the company that now owns the SJ30 light business jet design originally developed by Sino Swearingen, has started construction on a new completion and delivery center at the Cedar City Regional Airport in southwestern Utah. The new facility is adjacent to the headquarters of SyberJet's parent company, MSC Aerospace, and will provide space for marketing, sales, customer service, pilot training, interior finishing, and aircraft delivery. SyberJet President Chuck Taylor said the company plans to start deliveries late next year. Actor Morgan Freeman, who has flown an SJ30 since 2009, will be the launch customer for the newest version of the jet, the SJ30i.

The single-pilot-certified swept-wing SJ30 flies at speeds up to 486 knots, with a range up to 2,500 nautical miles. It's equipped with Williams FJ44 engines and SyberVision avionics by Honeywell, and maintains sea-level cabin pressure up to 41,000 feet. The SJ30i will have a new interior design with a "fresh and inviting new look and feel," according to the company's news release. The next version in the works, the SJ30x, will feature more powerful FJ44-3AP-25 engines with dual FADEC controls, offering more range, quicker time to climbs, higher cruise speed at altitude, and increased payload. It's expected to start deliveries in 2017. SyberJet has said it expects to produce about 12 to 24 airplanes per year, which will sell at about $8 million each.

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I was looking through the archives the other day to see when we did our first serious coverage of electric aircraft. It was 2009; five years ago this summer. We imagined then that production versions would be trickling to market in a few years. They aren’t. But that’s not to say there’s not interesting progress being made in electrics and especially hybrid drive for aircraft.

I wasn’t particularly surprised when Airbus announced last week that its skunk works had flown a ducted fan electric that will serve as a gateway into research on what Airbus really has in mind: a hybrid-drive regional airliner. It’s not surprising that they’re going in that direction, but the technologies they hope to use—which barely exist never mind being mature—are right out there on the edge. More on that later.

Counting Airbus, I know of five hybrid-drive projects, including versions from Flight Design, Pipistrel, Diamond and another company set to announce a new project of its own that I can’t mention yet. You don’t even have to dust off your calculator to conclude that these hybrid ideas are simply daft economically. Diamond, in partnership with Siemens, claims it has the weight under control, but as with so many of these projects, the return on the required investment makes three-acre lots in the Everglades sound like a good retirement play. But then general aviation has always had its share of dingbat ideas that everyone knows will never work. Flying cars anyone?

With commercial success unlikely for the moment, why are these companies chasing these moonbeams? It’s simple and actually quite sensible. They’re the test-bed projects that will lead to the next generation of electric airplanes and the ones after that, where commercial viability will be in reach, if not assured. Hybrid-drive research aircraft will allow sustained electric flight in the thousands of hours and eventually prove technology that might finally circle back to hybrids that do work economically. They’re experience generators and could provide some eye-opening performance points.

When I was in Slovenia last month, I got a look at Pipistrel’s Panthera Hybrid, which is just in the concept stage. It will be a serial hybrid, meaning the gasoline engine drives a generator, but has no direct motive connection to the prop. Thrust comes from a seriously powerful brushless DC motor capable of as much horsepower as you have electricity to pour into it. In fact, Pipistrel envisions a five-blade prop to absorb the torque of what could be a very sporting takeoff indeed.

This design is sort of a booster concept. The batteries, which live in the wings, will sustain full power for only six minutes. Then the airplane transitions to hybrid flight on a turbocharged, four-cylinder engine vaguely based on a Rotax 914 driving a generator, which in turn drives the motor at lower power levels suitable for cruise. The plan is to have sufficient surplus power to recharge the batteries after takeoff. Why go to all this trouble? Pipistrel sees five reasons: less noise, high-performance regardless of density altitude, multi-fuel capability and dual power sourcing—a twin in a single, if you will. But the overarching reason is that this is a research project; the first step in what’s next.

The same ethos is driving Flight Design, which is pursuing a parallel hybrid concept (PDF). Same booster idea, but the electric motor works in parallel with the gasoline engine to provide more power for short bursts, when it’s needed. So you’d use the electrics for takeoff or perhaps climb, but throttle back during cruise, as with Pipistrel’s serial design. The efficiency gain comes in having a small combustion engine punch above its weight with the addition of 40 more horsepower from the electric motor. It wouldn’t require the same battery capacity as a pure electric airplane, so the overall weight penalty isn’t as great. The electric motor provides some redundancy if the combustion engine fails, but just glide stretching, since it lacks the power for sustained level flight. To make these things work, both Flight Design and Pipistrel will have to work out challenging details related to battery technology, charging and electronic control logic. Pipistrel, for instance, is using distributed computing to manage the hybrid power train. They’ll have this technology available when battery capacity catches up and makes electrics practical. That could be awhile, but catch up it will.

Then there’s Airbus, which announced the E-fan last week. Again, there’s no practical airplane lurking in this prototype, just the beginning of a developmental thread that the company hopes will lead to something breathtakingly ambitious: an electric airliner. When I first heard this concept, I thought it was even nuttier than flying cars, but I didn’t have the imagination to consider it as a hybrid. Further, when ducted fans were mentioned, I envisioned a DC-9 type airplane with big fans on the back. Another failure of imagination, for electric airplanes will require far lighter and more efficient airframes than are being built today. A battery company has been testing an electric Cessna 172, but I can't imagine there will ever by a commerically viable electric Cessna 172. If GA remains so hidebound to still support Skyhawk production by the time batteries are capable of flying it, we're all screwed.

You can get a feel of the airframe requirements from this prospectus (PDF) describing the so-called E-Thrust concept which would conceivably be employed to power the electric airliner Airbus has its eye on. EADs and Rolls-Royce are throwing serious money at this idea. It has a timeline of about 2050, which seems realistic to me. One driving goal is to reduce carbon emissions by 75 percent. While the world debates carbon control, companies designing aircraft for the mid-term future clearly realize aviation is vulnerable to high carbon emissions and they know that to stay in the game, they can’t rely on turbine engines forever.

The E-Thrust idea envisions a gas-turbine serial hybrid distributing electrical power to clusters of motors driving high efficiency fans. As with the Pipistrel hybrid, batteries--or energy reservoirs of some kind-- would provide power for high-demand takeoff and landing go-arounds and would provide sufficient redundancy for landing in case of a generator failure. Conceptual review suggests that one large single gas turbine is more efficient that several smaller ones so, yup, this is a single-engine airliner. Will it spawn the inevitable acronym, ESEOPS? (If you think certification in 2014 is a challenge, imagine driving something like this through the regulatory hoops. It gives me a headache.)

But that’s the nature of progress. The engineers who will sit across the table from EASA and FAA to complete the short strokes on this project probably haven’t entered undergrad school yet and I envy them the interesting future ahead of them. As for light GA electrics, I’m bullish, but patient. These hybrid projects will jolly things along, but battery capacity gains are steady, not rapid. Within a year or two, I think a couple of companies will work around that limitation with quick-change packs and get minimal capability electrics into the market. And they’ll find buyers, too, albeit not a frenzy. That’s okay with me. I’m just anxious to get my mitts on one.

The hybrid idea for light aircraft seems inevitable if distant, benefitting from both battery progress and another trend most of us tend to forget: internal combustion engines are improving just as rapidly as batteries are. Toyota has been using Atkinson-cycle engines in its hybrids for several years and next year plans to introduce in the U.S. an Atkinson-based model called the Aygo, which it claims will yield 78 mpg fuel economy. The Aygo is already marketed in Europe. My guess is an Atkinson-cycle engine would adapt well as an aircraft hybrid powerplant, since it doesn't need a gearbox or any kind of thrust bearing arrangement to run a generator. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Toyota has already done this, since the company has shown a predilication for dabbling in aviation.

Interesting times.

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