CC Blog Editor's Letter Insights

Drones and The Wright Stuff

Written by Jeff Child

Commercial and consumer drones are among the most dynamic areas of embedded system design today. The industry that Circuit Cellar covers—and is a part of—is a vital enabler of these markets. Drone designs continue to leverage advances in processor/chip technologies, sensor innovations and power solutions that make up the heart of a drone’s electronics.

More than most areas of embedded system design, drones must be looked at within the broader perspective of issues beyond technology—in particular the many safety and regulatory issues surrounding them. After all, drones have to operate within the same air space as manned aircraft. And unlike the automobile industry, for example, the drone industry is relatively new with a regulatory landscape that’s still evolving and with many safety issues still to be resolved.

Acting FAA Administrator Daniel K. Elwell offered some insights on these subjects in his keynote address at this year’s InterDrone show early last month. He drew parallels to the high-level of safety that’s been achieved in commercial aviation to what the goal should be for drone safety. “Aviation is the gold standard,” said Elwell, “The safest form of transportation in the world. That’s not a position we’re about to take a step back on. I’ve heard this argument a few times: Back in Orville and Wilbur Wright’s era, people were willing to risk their lives for the birth of a new form of transportation. Now that we’re on the cusp of aviation’s next great era (drones), shouldn’t we be willing to accept some of the same risks in the name of progress? Folks, there’s a really simple answer to that question: No.”

“Manned aviation already learned those lessons. We paid that price. We’re not going to do it again. And the public wouldn’t let us, anyway.” Elwell made the point that with drones, you’re not starting from scratch like the Wright brothers. “The FAA has spent six decades working with airlines, manufacturers and countless others to get where we are now. And we’re ready to use everything we’ve learned so that the drone industry can reach its full potential as quickly as possible.”

Elwell went on to list some of the progress along these lines in the FAA and Department of Transportation. “We’re building flexible, responsive regulatory processes that can keep up with all your creativity while ensuring safety isn’t compromised,” he said, “We’ve automated how drone operators get permission to fly in controlled airspace. We’re laying the groundwork for a comprehensive Unmanned Traffic Management System. We’ve authorized low-risk small drone flights, and created a performance-based waiver and exemption process to allow more advanced operations.”

Another key effort is the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program launched last October by US Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao. The initiative partners the FAA with local, state and tribal governments, which then partner with private sector participants to safely explore the further integration of drone operations. In May of this year, the USDOT selected 10 state, local and tribal governments as participants in the UAS Integration Pilot Program. Data gathered from these pilot projects will form the basis of a new regulatory framework to safely integrate drones into the national airspace.

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According to the USDOT, the 10 final selectees will work with the FAA to refine their operational concepts. Over the next two and a half years, the selectees will collect drone data involving night operations, flights over people and beyond the pilot’s line of sight, package delivery, detect-and-avoid technologies and the reliability and security of data links between pilot and aircraft. The data collected from these operations will help the USDOT and FAA craft new enabling rules. These will include rules for complex low-altitude operations and improving communications and addressing security and privacy risks.

In Elwell’s keynote he cited a fun story about the pilot program’s first test that happened just recently in Blacksburg, Virginia. A Project Wing drone delivered a popsicle to a two-year-old boy, just six minutes after the order was placed. “It was historic—the first beyond visual line-of-sight residential drone delivery in the United States,” said Elwell, “It was the ‘Mr. Watson, I want to see you’ for the 21st century. But to little Jack, it was just cool. In his words: ‘Airplane brought me a Popsicle!’ These are important steps forward—steps that bring drones closer to just being a routine operator in our airspace.”

This appears in the October 339 issue of Circuit Cellar magazine

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Editor-in-Chief at Circuit Cellar | + posts

Jeff Child has more than 28 years of experience in the technology magazine business—including editing and writing technical content, and engaging in all aspects of magazine leadership and production. He joined the Circuit Cellar after serving as Editor-in-Chief of COTS Journal for over 10 years. Over his career Jeff held senior editorial positions at several of leading electronic engineering publications, including EE Times and Electronic Design and RTC Magazine. Before entering the world of technology journalism, Jeff worked as a design engineer in the data acquisition market.