October 4, 2023

What’s the Hold-up With UAS?

“Unmanned aviation is a pie in need of a Solomonic cutting. Even the name is wrong,” said retired US Navy RADM Tim Heely.

Those claiming a legitimate share of the pie – and the name – are powerful. They include the Federal Aviation Administration responsible for keeping everybody safe through US airspace and on US aircraft; a burgeoning marketplace metaphorically stuck in a delivery truck toting technology capable of making it fly; and the United States military.

The Patuxent Partnership panel on UAS safety, which included representatives from various slices of the pie, didn’t even broach challenges beyond the continental United States.

RADM Heely, senior vice president of strategy for Vanilla Unmanned and former board member for Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), was blunt. The hurdles to advance remote-controlled aircraft are very nearly insurmountable to almost anyone working on this technology, but especially small business, where innovative solutions are most likely to be found.

None of his panel members disagreed.

The technology is outpacing regulation. Without regulation, authorization to test and develop is out of reach.

CAPT Stewart Harro, managing director of air safety for FedEx Express, might have been even more blunt, drawing upon his experience in the commercial aviation division for the huge logistics and transportation company. The UAS industry must address the other systems it needs – such as air traffic controllers – to establish public acceptance of the new technology. It is the marketplace that will spur the authorizations needed for what buyers want, he said.

To win such public acceptance, CAPT Harro said, requires the industry to address every unmitigated risk it can overcome in the technology.

This is particularly difficult this early in a new technology’s life. There are hundreds of unmanned systems being developed. No one knows how any of them work. No industry standards exist.

Robert Bader, UAS and Targets Chief Airworthiness Engineer, NAVAIR Airworthiness & CYBERSAFE Office (ACO), represents a particularly delicate slice of the UAS pie, facing all of the early development and shared airspace challenges the UAS industry faces plus relentless military, political and international security demands.

Even though, Mr. Bader explained, more than 80% of the UAS work in the military is not about the aircraft at all. It’s about the payload.

For Jay Kinser, manager of the Strategic Programs Branch UAS Integration Office at Federal Aviation Administration, it is about the aircraft and about who is piloting it. He concurred. “Regulations have not kept up with the innovation.”

It began with the FAA tasked to integrate pilotless aircraft into existing regulations in 2016. At the onset, a commercial UAS wasn’t much more than a line-of-sight toy able to operate under FAA exceptions. But UASs proliferated and flew beyond toys so quickly exceptions were obsolete practically upon implementation. Authorization, involving the procedures required for manufacturers to test and develop UASs, has not kept pace.

Nevertheless, Mr. Kinser pointed out, there have been zero fatalities and only one serious injury associated with a UAS, and that injury was the result of improper handling on the ground. Echoing admonitions from CAPT Harro of Fed-Ex, Mr. Kinser said it will be the public who controls the scope of the regulations.

It will depend, both men said, on what the public determines is an acceptable risk for the benefit received via from unmanned autonomy. Clearly human life will rank equally important as with piloted aircraft. But is the possibility of a drone crashing on your roof an acceptable risk for same-day delivery?

It will take four steps, CAPT Harro said. Regulation to determine the baseline of operations. Education throughout the aviation industry to understand how UASs work, as well as how piloted aircraft are understood. And the fourth is public acceptance discussed above. CAPT Harro calls the third the most crucial: Data sharing. What that means is, sharing your failures across the industry.

Reprisal for such confessions in the young UAS field could squash your entire company, RADM Heely replied. Nor did he see the likelihood of a renaming of Unmanned Autonomous Aircraft as Remotely Piloted Aircraft – a name change some of the panel attendees said might help alleviate concerns about unattended aircraft in the airspace.

CAPT Harro also endorsed the term remotely piloted as gender neutral, emphasizing that diversity improves an organization’s effectiveness and builds resiliency – and that the UAS field was overwhelmingly white and male.

Still RADM Heely shook his head, “I am all for opening the field to all comers. But Remotely Piloted versus Unmanned Aircraft was not gender related,” he said of the military’s naming the new technology unmanned autonomous. “I was on that Task Force. It was whether the vehicles needed a trained “pilot” to fly them or if a non-pilot could operate them. And that was that.”


The Patuxent Partnership works with government, industry, and academia on initiatives in science and technology, hosts programs of interest to NAVAIR and the broader DoD community, and supports workforce development including education initiatives & professional development.

To learn more about The Patuxent Partnership and its programs, visit its Leader member page.

Leave A Comment