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Historically, the unmanned aircraft system (UAS) market has been dominated by military applications from surveillance to active engagement. In the near term, the market’s military focus is expected to continue. However, with projected growth from around $6 billion today to nearly $12 billion in 2023 (according to the Teal Group), large-scale commercial adaptation is not only possible, but likely.

While the unmanned aircraft system (UAS) market has been dominated by military applications from surveillance to active engagement, large-scale commercial adaptation is not only possible, but likely.
On December 30, 2013, the FAA announced six U.S. test sites for the development of commercial drones and support systems. These sites will lay the groundwork for a new set of rules and operating parameters for UASs in and around commercial airspace.

This announcement and initiatives from companies such as Amazon have caused speculation about the different types of operations that could be enabled by drones—from food and flower delivery to high-speed police surveillance. However, a full array of technological and operational roadblocks currently prevent mass commercial adoption of UASs.

Aircraft Technology: Autonomy vs. Remote Piloting

In today’s intelligent machine world, the line between algorithms and the brain has become blurred. For years, the most sophisticated UASs have employed “autonomous” algorithms that allow them to operate for hours without human intervention or control. This autonomy can be perceived as true intelligence but also as dangerous—raising concerns about accidents and moral and legal accountability.

Although autonomy is alluring to commercial users thanks to lower personnel costs, it is unnecessary and overcomplicated for most near-term commercial applications and may inhibit regulatory approval and public acceptance.

It is expected that consumer product delivery and high-speed police surveillance will be enabled by drones.
Researchers from Jabil Defense and Aerospace Services and UAS SafeFlight believe that for the next 10 years, “human-in-the-loop” aircraft that use autonomous systems to alert the operator and allow the person to take control will have the best chance of winning over regulators and the public alike.

Although less elegant than fully autonomous systems, this hybrid approach is significantly more palatable and pragmatic as an initial step. This is not to suggest that full autonomy is impossible. However, the researchers consider a UAS launching, delivering a drink or supporting a police officer and then returning to base without human intervention, to be a scenario beyond the 10-year time-frame.

The UAS designs most likely to be certified for flight in urban areas will use this hybrid approach. Therefore, highly reliable communication between the drone and the human operator, using a system able to prioritize traffic, is a critical concern. However, current cellular bandwidth is not adequate and existing protocols for line of sight (LOS) systems are not scalable.

Modular Scalability and Standardization

In the airframe and propulsion areas, UAS developers can draw insight from the standardization of military and commercial aircraft. Currently, there are more than 120 different unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) models with varying payloads, propulsion systems, and power sources. By comparison, there are less than a handful of new fighter jets and only a few standard commercial aircraft models, with only three engine manufacturers.

Standardization of UAS hardware is essential for cost-effective manufacturability that will help drive mass commercialization. The future will depend upon modular components that are fit for purpose, aligned with industry standards, and easy to scale up as demand increases. However, the UAS manufacturing landscape is currently fragmented and not standardized.

Today, the largest gap in fit-for-purpose is in UAS propulsion systems. Smaller drones are operating with adapted model airplane engines, either gas or battery powered. These engines were not designed to carry valuable goods and lack sufficient reliability for operating in commercial airspace. In the near term, the authors anticipate the emergence of a liquid fuel engine that is based on existing technology but designed specifically for UASs and able to pass engine reliability tests similar to those for commercial engines.