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Ascent: Unmanned Aircraft Prepare to Fly High

Drones, called “UAVs” (unmanned aerial vehicles) by large companies and industry groups or UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) by the Federal Aviation Administration, will be an $89 billion business worldwide in the next decade, according to Wall Street analysts.

Progress is slow, however, because the FAA is still in the process of creating the regulations and guidelines necessary for entry into “integrated airspace.” Currently commercial and revenue-generating UAV flights are narrowly restricted to flights for research and development. Congress passed a law in 2012 that sets 2015 as the deadline to establish how UAV flights and conventional airplanes will someday share the air.

The new flying machines range in size from a hand-held unit to that of a small car. They also differ in budget ranging from a few dollars to multi-million dollar military or government surveillance drones approved for defense, border patrol or homeland security use.

The Department of Defense uses the term “Unmanned Aircraft Systems” (UAS) to describe its unmanned flight equipment; the term “drone” is used more accurately to describe “targets,” explains Stan VanderWerf, entrepreneurial engineer and former executive director for Colorado’s UAS team, (now called Rocky Mountain UAS). Unlike a costly Predator that patrols remote sections of Afghanistan in search of Al Qaeda, UAS are being tested for agriculture, environmental and weather monitoring as well as for use by energy companies, municipalities and Hollywood filmmakers.

The popularity of remote- controlled flight comes as no surprise to VanderWerf who sees plenty of energy-efficient applications on the horizon. Non-defense unmanned aircraft usually have a wingspan of six to eight feet. Many are smaller – the size of a remote-controlled toy – and lightweight.
They are usually battery-powered or use little fuel, making them economical to operate.

A helicopter costs about $700 per hour to operate; a UAV will fly for five dollars or less. That low cost combined with the ability to carry payloads like cameras, heat sensors, air quality monitors and more make it an attractive tool.

Among those already using test equipment are fire, police, universities, mining officials and others who monitor dangerous environmental conditions. The University of Colorado has flown UAS for weather research for more than a decade.

During last summer’s Black Forest fire, firefighters experimented with heat sensor-equipped UAS mounted on an airplane. Once the blaze was extinguished, a sensor was sent in to monitor hot spots. When an underground fire was identified, a team was sent in to put it out, averting a reinitiated fire.
“By sending in UAS sensors, no one was put in harm’s way,” VanderWerf says.

On a macro level, energy giants like BP have experimented with unmanned aircraft since 2006. UAVs have been used to check more than 300,000 miles of the company’s natural gas pipeline. They also serve as a valuable environmental tool -- monitoring the movement of marine mammals in the Alaskan seas near BP’s offshore drilling operation.

The low cost to fly commercial or industrial UAVs is a powerful driver.

Industry experts estimate a small, unmanned vehicle fitted with a heat-sensing camera for pipeline monitoring may cost as little as $20,000. In contrast, a helicopter sent to monitor an oil pipeline costs about $3,000 per hour.

David Quinones, CEO of New York-based SkyCamUSA heads an aerial photography and video production company specializing in close-range aerial media. His customers range from Sony Pictures, NBC and the National Geographic Channel to real estate’s ReMax and Century 21, Napa Valley vineyards and universities including Princeton, Johns Hopkins and Baylor.

The company’s fleet of multicopters meets FAA regulations by suspending remotely-controlled video camera units from a line. They fly vertically and quiet, using six or eight electric motors. He looks forward to using commercial UAS aircraft in the future.

One major problem, Quinones says, is that small drones need to be able to detect other aircraft and maneuver out-of-the-way by themselves. Smaller unmanned equipment may also not be detected on radar by commercial airliners.

“This is something that we need to really work on,” he points out, adding that integration may take several phases.

So while commercial users including Amazon.com and national pizza delivery chains must wait for an FAA-approved certification process before launching new applications, UAS enthusiasts are content with their approved 400-foot airspace ceiling. Hobbyists who own military-style UVAs have begun attending “Fight Club”-like meet-ups in the Bay Area. They enjoy pitting the amateur flying machines against each other in dogfights and races.

Even in Deer Trail, Colorado - where residents may apply for “drone hunting licenses” - there’s a marketing opportunity, says VanderWerf.
“Instead of using clay pigeons for skeet or target shooting, you can substitute them with UASs that fly in the air like birds – making it more of a sport.”

Entrepreneurial opportunities in the UAS industry appear endless. Amazon.com’s CEO Jeff Bezos has announced his company plans to use unmanned “octocopters” to deliver customer orders – and he’s not alone.

Here in Colorado Springs Stan VanderWerf has launched his own start-up using 3-D printers. “I’m already working on building UAV component prototypes with 3-D technology. It’s an exciting market,” he says.