Are the FAA and Directorate of Defense Trade Controls acting much like Nero and fiddling whilst an emerging American technology industry burns?
Every once in a while things hit a price and availability point that takes them from niche to mass market. Two products may this year hammer a nail into the coffin of American sUAS start ups.
One an airframe and the other an emerging autopilot company.
Competition amongst civilian American manufacturers is fierce. They are operating though to a large extent with their hands tied. How might the world look if we had been steering a start up in the last five years.
Time to innovate
Lets imagine we have designed an autopilot that very ably flies a six foot wingspan delta wing around a set of way points at heights and speeds that we have determined. Once the craft leaves our hand we need to do nothing until it returns and lands at our feet. As it flies it takes vertical and oblique images. Once landed, the boys in the back room will turn them into very accurate maps or 3D models.
These systems exist and start at around $10,000 ready to fly. Designing and manufacturing a system does not come cheap. Recouping our investment will take a while.
Thats maybe why systems being sold to the military are at least three times more expensive than we are.
We face several problems, closest to home is the FAA.
Commercial drone flight is not yet permitted in the USA, flights beyond visual line of sight (VLOS) are also not allowed.
Other than a few cease and desist letters issued to people using models helicopters to take images for real estate the FAA has done very little to enforce its rules.
This is leading to an emerging CB radio situation.
People are just doing it anyway.
Back in the 1970’s there was a very cheap licence required to operate two way CB radio equipment. As radio equipment became cheaper and plentiful people simply started ignoring the licence requirements.
Will the FAA cope?
It takes a short amount of GoogleFu to find companies offering UAS imagery commercially in the USA.
Kevin Lauscher, from Canadian manufacturers, Draganfly, cannot say how many they’ve sold in the U.S. so far. But he says that aside from law enforcement agencies, they’ve sold drones to companies in real estate, manufacturing, academic institutions and even resorts. He described how some construction companies use drones for safety reasons, in place of a person on top of a crane or scaffolding.
The current hot topic is drone journalism, borne out of the rise in multi engined mini helicopters that can lift SLR cameras for short times. They are simple to fly and build. No real aeronautical skills are required to operate them. Multicopters were the preserve of universities and military research projects five years ago. Now they are the fastest growing sub group of Radio Control modelling.
Placing video cameras on model aircraft and transmitting live video back to the operator is also popular.
Known as first person view or FPV the pilot in command uses the video feed to steer his craft through the skies. Almost like being sat in a cockpit, but with much less expense. Internationally flights have flown as high as 20,000′ and 40km out and back. Once again some search engine sourcing will find plenty of examples of long distance and high altitude flying in the USA.
If you group real estate photographers and FPV proponents together. Operating UAS outside of regulations.It would be very likely that the USA has in excess of 2000 people currently flying illegally.
Many people would argue that number is too small.
But that does not help us and our small tech start up we are trying to do the right thing.
So we can’t easily operate our inventions in the USA yet.
Best we send our work overseas, countries the UK and Australia have clear and concise rules in place for commercial UAS flight.
In fact experience so far gained is allowing some operators in those countries to be allowed to fly ever higher and further. The UKs Project Ursula is a good example of what’s happening
URSULA (UAS Remote Sensing for Use in Land Applications) is a 2-year research and development programme to explore the potential for advanced remote sensing in land applications, primarily in high input arable farming. It complements currently available remote sensing techniques, for example, satellite-derived information or real-time data, and pushes horizons for information and land management.
The project and capability has emerged from a unique collaboration between two companies working in complementary areas of technology; Callen-Lenz Associates Ltd, aviation and remote sensing specialists, and Environment Systems, environmental experts in earth observation and geographic intelligence. With agricultural experts also a key part of the team, our activities cover the full spectrum of the work stream from air system design and operation through to bespoke remote sensing system and data interpretation for agriculture and land-based markets.
So they need our machines right?
We now face a big hurdle. ITAR This is where the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls steps in to obstruct us.
ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations ) seek to stop technology that can have military uses falling into the wrong hands. This means we would have
to ask overseas purchasers to submit paperwork and pay an extra fee. There is also the matter of waiting for the DDTC to respond and approve applicants.
It even affects the big boys, speaking at Farnborough 2010 Wes Bush of Lockheed Martin said:-
“We need to recognize exactly what it is we’re trying to protect, there are a lot of folks around the world that understand how to build really good air frames. And a UAV s basically an air frame.
Export restrictions “caused competitors around the globe to invest where we already had invested, and it locked us out of markets,”
Two government entities are holding us back, one from flying in the USA and the other stops our platforms flying overseas.
ITAR rules seem ever more archaic as the very sensors that when packaged together become of concern to DDTC are found in most smart phones these days.
What next ?
Operating somewhat in an ITAR grey area are Opensource autopilots. Developers from around the world sharing knowledge and developing platforms that are certainly now equal to what we have invented and better than many flying in military sUAS.
The flight code is made freely available on the internet and a few spots around the world make the hardware to run it.
We are an enlightened company and realise that the more people that are testing sensors and flying platforms the more information we will have to develop our system.
There will always be plenty of people that want turnkey proven airframe and autopilot systems. People that just don’t have the time to tinker and pioneer but have the cash to invest.
This is where the Chinese step up to the plate.
Its a simple matter for them to now to lift all opensource research and development work and turn well meaning projects into finished products.
The Chinese are also pretty good at developing their own platforms. This years AVIC cup UAS competition raised the bar dramatically in the sUAS world. It carried the largest cash prize ever offered and a hefty technical challenge. Airframes had to demonstrate autonomous landings on a simulated carrier deck. As that deck was not travelling a tricky challenge in any sort of crosswind.
It has been stated that every Police station should have a least one sUAS in China. There are fleets of aircraft being rolled out for mapping operations.
Speaking at the delievery of 14 aircraft in April 2010 Xu Deming, vice-minister of the Ministry of Land and Resources and director general of the State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping (SBSM), said that acting as a powerful supplement to traditional aerial photography, the UAV aerial photography system is characterized by its flexibility, high efficiency, accuracy, low cost and wide application scope.Also rumoured unmanned cargo flights by 2014. China is serious about unmanned operations
The ministry now boasts an emergency vehicle kitted out with sUAS that are used for rapid mapping of emergency situations.
Just a tiny slice of the Chinese market would suit our company.
High volume productions of airframes and autopilots for that large market mean inevitably mean that we cannot compete on cost. It almost feels that shortages of sensors for our platforms might just be down to high volume Chinese production runs.
India has similar ambitions and is beginning to create its own UAS industry and is pumping money into innovation and education.
So whilst the Chinese equipment might not be as cutting edge as ours, it is cheap.
For our $10,000 single system it is now possible to purchase 10 complete Chinese platforms.
Due out early next year is what looks to be the first serious airframe suitable for the mass market The X8 it has spaces in all the right places for equipment and is of a wingspan that should work in hot and high countries.
Its cheap as well, $180 motor included. Very hard to set up a production run and compete against that in countries with better pay and conditions.
Add an autopilot from the Feitech company and you could build a system for less than $1000. If we did that and doubled the money we could be selling $2000 complete systems.
Perhaps its time to re think our own development work.
The FAA faces enforcing rules on a group that is already ignoring it the DDTC obstructs local growth whilst having no authority over autopilots and airframes coming in from other parts of the world.
Right now there is a great deal of fuss about rules for flight coming into play by January 2012. This seems to be people taking earlier announcements at face and not noticing that the NPRM process keeps being put back. Even once that has happened there is a further 90 period for comments.
If on the 1st of January something is said, nothing could happen until April. We understand that the actual process is likely to happen in April or May meaning July or August is more likely as an announcment point.
The day will come though when UAS in the NAS for America becomes common place. Once there are rules heavy enforcement action will start detering those acting unlawfully. To a large extent the industry will become self regulating.
If I have invested in all the kit and am trying to earn a crust, I will be quick to make sure the FAA know about any unlicenced or dangerous flight operations. Anything that could tighten laws further or shine a bad light on what I do is a bad thing.
There will be many poachers turned gamekeeper.
What a pity though that simple rules were not put in place to allow young startups to gain a foothold.
Chinese technology keeps obeying Moores law and becomes faster and cheaper. Many users have become early adopters and will probably stick with brands they know.
Best to stay on the cutting edge of innovation and hope that some folks buy American.