Amazon made headlines with their idea to use “drones” for delivering packages. Google and others soon joined in. In the view of the public all that is needed is needed is for the FAA to simply give a green light. The reality is, it’s not nearly that simple. There are a number of serious obstacles that must be overcome, including some that may be less obvious than others. Some are beginning to be addressed, others may have been overlooked.
Among the more obvious problems that might be associated with extended range UAV operation is obstacle avoidance. Recent technology developments, like the new collision avoidance systems for Yuneec and DJI models begin to address that problem.
Power durability for long range flight is a problem not easily solved, but perhaps fuel cells hold promise for filling that gap. But if you thought exploding hover-board Li-Po batteries are dangerous…
Weather is another limiting factor.
Another problem involves identifying UAVs to other aircraft, and solutions involving miniaturized ADS-B systems or transponders may address that issue as well. We even suggested that approach in a very old post on this web site. Let’s avoid adding ELT (Emergency Locator Transmitters) to the mix for now.
Then there is the issue that many may have overlooked which is the operating word in the term: “radio control”, that being “radio”. Without the radio there can be no control. Most current UAVs, at least those most often envisioned as “drones”, use one of two radio frequencies for control, those being 2.4 gHz and 5.8 gHz. The FAA designated those frequencies for “short range” uses, for everything from Wi-Fi to portable phones to garage door openers to car alarms and even microwave ovens. The 5.8 gHz frequency is used another frequency used for Wi-Fi. What distinguishes all of these devices, and that includes remote control aircraft, is they are short range; distances measured in feet and not miles. The military overcomes the problem using satellite signals, but that’s not an economical or practical solution even for AmazonPrime.
Increasing the power to overcome larger distances is not a viable solution. For one thing, those frequencies are still “line-of-sight” transmission, and legislation can’t change physics. On a more practical level, anyone who ever listened to a CB radio knows what happens when a frequency designed for low power, short range use becomes saturated with high power signals.
AT&T has proposed using some of their mobile phone bandwidth for the purpose of remote control of unmanned aircraft, but the approval process has a long journey through another agency, the FCC. There are also international standards to be taken into account. As the expression goes, that’s a whole other kettle of fish, and certainly not easily addressed.
Even less obvious is the need for specific “highways” to be designated for long distance UAV flights. Most of the public is not aware of the fact that there are in existence today several aerial byways for military “drones”, but they mostly fall within areas designated as “Military Operational Areas” or MOA as they appear on the sectional maps, if you look for them. Some are as low as 200 feet. Almost none of them are in active use. But the fact remains, where are the new “aerial highways” to be established? Could they cross the military’s existing “drone” air routes?
It is possible that the FAA could see BLOS flight for UAVs as a type of instrument flight operation, and a case could be made for requiring specialized IFR or Instrument Flight Rule certification for those UAV pilots/operators.
And how would traffic be managed on these new “drone airways”? Would it require the creation of an automated flight control system (AFC?) ? Perhaps, and adoption of a version of the ADS-B system would play in integral roll.
But there are the more practical questions: What would happen if a delivery drone fell on an interstate highway? What about noise concerns around residential areas? Would they be restricted to certain hours of the day? What about night flight? How would regulations take into account such things as birds and weather? What if someone follows the drone only to steal the package being delivered? Not to mention the dog that runs off with the drone-delivered pizza or a fuel-cell mishap.
Then there’s the matter of insurance and liability and privacy and… What if…. ?
The issues surrounding BLOS make the current regulation dilemmas seem almost trivial. There will clearly be a lot more questions than answers for some time to come.