Entrepreneurs eye unmanned aircraft


(That looks mighty like a Puma from AV ed)

By Peter Corbett

Stephen Rayleigh’s unmanned aircraft does aerial photography from an altitude of 300 feet with images so crisp a runner’s shadow is visible on the pavement.

Rayleigh, 24, a recent graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, is developing a remote-control aerial technology that among other uses could provide detailed imagery of agricultural fields, tracking which crops are healthy and pinpointing acreage that might need more water or fertilizer.

“I think like everybody trying to get into this industry, I see a lot of applications for this technology,” said Rayleigh, a former U.S. Army pilot of unmanned aircraft. “But the first one when it’s deregulated that will be big is agriculture.”

Rayleigh is among the entrepreneurs and companies who see unlimited potential for civilian uses of unmanned aircraft to do day-to-day tasks more efficiently and safely than traditional manned aircraft. But until the federal government develops the safety standards that are required before unmanned aircraft take to the skies for commercial and private use, the vehicles remain largely grounded.

The U.S. military has relied on remotely piloted aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the emerging technology is severely restricted in the general airspace of the United States, and commercial uses are prohibited. The Federal Aviation Administration is reviewing the use of unmanned aircraft in U.S. airspace and is expected to make a decision in a little more than two years.

Unmanned aircraft are often referred to as drones, an unwelcome term for industry insiders who prefer unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, and unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

Once the federal government signs off on commercial and civilian use of unmanned aircraft, the vehicles could be deployed for a wide range of uses, including crop dusting, tracking wildlife and cattle, and inspecting power lines, pipelines, bridges and windmills for structural damage. Freight deliveries, disaster relief, volcano monitoring and real-estate and construction-site photography are also possibilities.

Small unmanned aircraft could provide aerial video of disasters and crime scenes, replacing multimillion-dollar news helicopters.

This year, unmanned aircraft were used to evaluate flooding in the upper Midwest, and, last month, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported that it used an unmanned aircraft with an infra-red camera in Saskatchewan to find an injured car-accident victim who had wandered away from the crash scene.

The economic benefits of opening up unmanned aircraft for commercial uses are great, particularly for Arizona. An industry trade group, the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Washington, released a study in March that estimated civilian use of unmanned aircraft in the United States would create 70,000 jobs and $13.6 billion in economic growth in its first three years.

Arizona would rank fifth in the nation in direct employment from unmanned-aircraft technology, with 494 jobs and a total economic impact of $93 million in its first year. It would trail only California, Washington, Texas and Florida.

By 2025, the industry would boost direct employment in Arizona by 2,191 jobs and total employment by 4,260 jobs and would lift the economy by $414 million, the study said.

FAA to pick 6 test sites

The FAA must review and implement safety strategies for integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace with commercial and private air traffic by September 2015.

The use of smaller unmanned aircraft, those that weigh less than 55 pounds and fly below 400 feet, will be allowed starting in August 2014. Many emerging technologies will rely on these smaller aircraft.

The FAA is scheduled to pick six locations by the end of this year where unmanned aircraft can be tested for safety, reliability and performance standards in a variety of geographic and climatic conditions.

The Arizona Commerce Authority, with a team headed by retired Air Force Lt. Gen. John Regni, is one of 25 applicants from 24 states seeking to host one of the unmanned-aircraft test sites.

Meanwhile, entrepreneurs like Rayleigh can do only so much to develop and test the technology.

“I can’t start a business here without breaking the law,” he said.

Rayleigh’s aerial mapping produces images 10 times sharper than those available from Google Earth’s satellite, and his flight costs are a fraction of those for manned flights, he said.

His aircraft, which he calls the Lynx, is polystyrene foam clad with Kevlar to protect it from hard landings. The 10-pound plane with a 7-foot wingspan is outfitted with a tiny camera that can capture images of agricultural fields.

It can be launched without a runway, almost like a giant paper airplane, and can fly for more than an hour on lithium-ion batteries, said Rayleigh. His four-year Army stint included two years in Iraq.

Rayleigh estimated the cost of the miniature aircraft at $5,000 to $10,000, depending on how much of the manufacturing could be automated.

Another unmanned aircraft under development in Arizona is a 5-pound helicopter called the Cyclone that can hover or fly at 40 mph.

The Cyclone Autonomous Design Group of Tucson developed the miniature helicopter for police and border enforcement, said John Waszczak, Cyclone chief operating officer. It is equipped with conventional and infrared cameras and costs about $20,000, he said.

The company also envisions a Cyclone application for ranchers, Waszczak said.

Instead of getting on a horse or into a pickup, a rancher could launch an unmanned aircraft that would transmit images of water troughs, fences and cattle on the range.

“This thing could take over for cowboys” and accomplish in 30 minutes what might take a full day on the ground, Waszczak said.

Police or Border Patrol agents could quickly launch the unmanned aircraft, giving them an eye in the sky for up to 40 minutes with a motor, like that on Rayleigh’s aircraft.

Some fear spy planes

The surveillance capability of unmanned aircraft has some civil libertarians worried about domestic spying.

During an FAA conference call soliciting public opinion in April, several callers expressed concerns about public safety, privacy and noise.

Anna Lanz of the San Pedro Valley in southeastern Arizona told FAA officials that noise from unmanned aircraft would be a “major intrusion” if Arizona was selected for one of the six test sites, according to an FAA transcript.

“No surveillance equipment should be used at all, ever,” Lanz said.

But Jerry LeMieux of Lake Havasu said in an interview last month that the FAA should focus on safety issues related to unmanned aircraft and leave the privacy issues to the U.S. Department of Justice.

LeMieux founded the Unmanned Vehicle University in Lake Havasu City in February 2012. The online school is focused on unmanned-aircraft engineering and operator training.

A former airline pilot, LeMieux said the United States is falling behind the rest of the world in developing civilian uses of unmanned aircraft.

“We’re going to crawl in America,” he said. “We need to get UAVs up and running and demonstrate that it’s safe.”

Lexa Garrett, president of the Saguaro chapter of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said unmanned aircraft with a pilot on the ground can do “the dull, the dangerous and the dirty” work of flying.

Safe integration of unmanned aircraft into the airspace also will help bring jobs to Arizona, said Garrett, a US Airways pilot.

“It’s the wave of the future, and there’s a lot of money in it,” she said.