No pilot, no problem?

No pilot, no problem?

Technology The military can use remote-controlled aircraft to do their work for them. The rest of us will have to wait PAUL MARKS THE promise is fan...

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The military can use remote-controlled aircraft to do their work for them. The rest of us will have to wait PAUL MARKS

THE promise is fantastic: new generations of remote-controlled aircraft could soon be flying in civilian airspace, performing all sorts of useful tasks. They could monitor flood defences, keep criminal suspects under surveillance, give firefighters a bird’s-eye view of blazes, search for people lost at sea, or provide wireless networks from on high. The reality is that a lack of radio frequencies to control the planes and serious concerns over their safety are going to keep them grounded for years to come. Surprisingly, given the commercial hopes it has for civil unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the aviation industry has failed to obtain the radio frequencies it needs to control them – and it will be 2011 before it can even begin to lobby for space on the radio spectrum. What’s more, none of the world’s aviation authorities will allow civil UAVs to fly in their airspace without a reliable system for avoiding other aircraft – and the industry has not yet even begun developing such a system. Experts say this could take up to seven years. Aerospace companies’ desire to develop civilian pilotless planes stems from the recent success of military UAVs, which have allowed US pilots to undertake 26 | NewScientist | 2 December 2006

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reconnaissance (and even strike) missions in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan without leaving their offices in California. The British government’s Department of Trade and Industry, which is backing a £32 million project to fly civilian UAVs by 2010, says the aircraft could be used for surveillance on behalf of the police and fire services, coastguards’ search-and-rescue missions, and power-line and pipeline inspection. Cellphone and broadband service providers could also use high-altitude UAVs to provide wireless coverage, the DTI says. Military aerospace firms such as Qinetiq and BAE Systems, both based in Farnborough, UK, believe crop surveillance, chemical and pollution sensing, and climate monitoring will also be big markets. Civil UAVs have already been successful in Japan, where Yamaha has sold more than 2000 motorbike-sized pilotless helicopters. Yamaha’s RMAX is used to inspect and spray paddy fields, and to monitor Japan’s active volcanoes and vents. “Japan has moved ahead very quickly with its agricultural applications, and people are seeing the commercial potential of UAVs from this,” says Sara Waddington of Merlin Integrated Systems, a UAV consultancy based in Watford, near London. For safety

the US Federal Aviation Administration, the US-based Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) and air-traffic-control body Eurocontrol. So what went wrong? “Flying UAVs is a complex, demanding issue involving ground, air, land and maritime frequency planning,” says AUVSI member and WG73 secretary Dewar Donnithorne-Tait. It is taking much more time than anyone expected to work out what kind of UAVs will need which frequencies, he says. Even if the industry gets its act together in time for the 2011 conference, competition for the desired frequencies – probably between 3 and 10 gigahertz – will be fierce, as burgeoning wireless services demand their share, says Bruno Esposito of rival Parisbased UAV trade group Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “Telecoms firms are not going to let bandwidth that they have paid billions for go easily to us,” he says. Some UAVs have been allowed to perform short experimental flights in civil airspace, but only under very strict conditions. “Each is done under piles of exemptions to air regulations that take a very long time to negotiate,” says Ian Poll of Cranfield Aerospace in Bedford, UK. This summer, the Los Angeles county sheriff’s department was forbidden from flying its small Yamaha’s RMAX does the dirty work aloft while its pilot stays safely on the ground


No pilot, no problem?

reasons, the RMAX is not designed to fly further than 150 metres from its controller, however, so it does not interfere with air traffic; and because this requires only a very short-range radio transmitter, it doesn’t need a dedicated radio band. For autonomous aircraft to be used at higher altitudes, and for surveillance and inspection tasks, they will need their own range of frequencies that do not interfere with cellphone networks, TVs, Wi-Fi and air-traffic control. Dedicated frequencies are handed out at the International Telecommunications Union’s World Radiocommunications Conference, which meets every four years. At the conference, special-interest groups bid for bandwidth and then argue over who gets what. It is a painfully slow process, and the next meeting, to be held in Geneva, Switzerland, next October, stopped accepting bids in March to allow time for preparatory meetings. No one in the UAV industry had applied for any new frequencies. “Unfortunately we did not get enough information from UAV makers to create a credible case,” says Geoff Bowker, an airspace-policy director at the UK Civil Aviation Authority. “We cannot now make a credible case for civil UAVs until the next conference, in 2011.” The CAA is working with WG73, the UAV working group at the European Organisation for Civil Aircraft Equipment. The group’s members include experts from

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Pictures from a German army UAV over Kabul in 2004 as it almost hits an Afghan jet carrying more than 100 passengers

police surveillance UAVs because of the risk to other air traffic. What’s more, every time the US government launches a UAV to patrol the Mexican border in a bid to prevent illegal immigration, civil traffic is banned over hundreds of square kilometres. So if UAVs are to mingle safely with other civilian aircraft, the industry needs to develop a safe, standardised collision avoidance system. This is complicated because aviation regulators demand that if UAVs are to have access to civil airspace, they must be “equivalent” in every way to regular planes. For instance, when an air-traffic controller needs to talk to a UAV’s remote pilot, the radio link should work in the same way as it does for an aircraft

of waiting for the policy.” The next version of Global Hawk, dubbed the Block 20, for example, will be fitted with TCAS, Walby says. This will allow a remote pilot to take evasive action to avoid a collision, but the system will not work automatically until the term “equivalent” is defined. In the UK, the governmentbacked plans for civilian UAVs to be flying routinely by 2010 are likely to be held up by this lack of a collision-avoidance system. The project is aiming to develop a simulated system by 2008, but that will not leave enough time for it to be developed and in use by 2010. “It’s fair to say that we are not as far along as we would like,” says Bryan Edmonson, a technologist with Flight Refuelling of Wimborne Minster in Dorset, UK, and a member of the project’s steering board. On the brighter side, last week

“A crewless aircraft on a collision course must behave as if it had a pilot on board”

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with an onboard pilot – the controller must be able to talk to the remote pilot as if they were sitting in the UAV, rather than having to be manually patched through by a radio operator. Similarly, a UAV on a collision course with another aircraft must behave as if it had a pilot on board. In such situations, conventional pilots obey an evasive-action order from an onboard “traffic collision alerting system” (TCAS). Ultimately UAVs will probably respond automatically to these orders. The problem for now is that aviation regulators have yet to define precisely what they mean by “equivalent”, so UAV makers are not yet willing to commit themselves to developing collision-avoidance technology. “There will be some point in the future when we all have senseand-avoid technology in our UAVs,” says Ed Walby of Northrop Grumman in San Diego, maker of the city-bus-sized Global Hawk military UAV. “It’s simply an issue

the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization, based in Montreal, Canada, said its navigation experts would meet in early 2007 to consider regulations for UAVs in civil airspace. That could be a step towards internationally agreed rules for how UAVs should operate. Even if the UN body makes rapid progress, however, it will be meaningless unless the industry can obtain the necessary frequencies to control the planes and feed images and other sensor data back to base, says Bowker. “The lack of robust, secure radio spectrum is a show-stopper.” Some experts are even more pessimistic. These problems mean civil UAVs may not have a future at all, a recent conference at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London heard. One aerospace executive, who asked to remain anonymous, believes UAVs will never fly in civilian airspace. “It’s something the industry wants badly, but the risks are too high and the issues too complex.” ● 2 December 2006 | NewScientist | 27

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