The Four “Ds” of Unmanned Systems
Interview by Rachel Duran
Editor’s Note: The interview with Michael Toscano took place on Dec. 4, 2013, before any announcement by the FAA in regard to the location of the six sites selected to test unmanned systems.
On December 30, 2013, the FAA announced its six test sites for unmanned systems:
*The University of Alaska
* State of Nevada
*New York’s Griffiss International Airport
*North Dakota Department of Commerce
*Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi
Michael Toscano says that if he could, he would use the word “safety” for every other word he utters when discussing unmanned systems. As the president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, Toscano consistently discusses keeping the nation’s airspace safe, as well as the vast potential of unmanned systems, be they air, land or maritime, in the civil and commercial sectors.
The AUVSI is the world’s largest nonprofit organization devoted exclusively to advancing the unmanned systems and robotics community. Members include 7,500 individuals from more than 2,100 organizations in 55 countries, from government, industry and academia.
The association promotes the unmanned systems industry through education and advocacy. The industry experienced a whirlwind of press coverage in December in regard to a “60 Minutes” television program segment where Amazon.com President Jeff Bezos highlighted the company’s plans for the use of “drones” in the delivery of goods. The segment bolstered the growing awareness of the maturation of the technology, and the potential that it holds.
Toscano shares his thoughts on the possibilities, technology developments still taking place, and why every state should have a test site supporting the development of unmanned systems.
Rachel Duran: What is the latest with the Federal Aviation Administration’s location search for unmanned systems test sites? There are more than 20 states in the running for these six sites. Can we expect an announcement by the end of this year?
Michael Toscano: We will hear something by the end of the year. An FAA individual has confirmed to us they are still on track with this announcement.
Duran: What does the establishment of these test sites mean to the industry?
Toscano: These test sites will give us the first indication of what is going to be necessary for us to have a high degree of confidence that this technology will be used in a safe way. In any operation that deals with unmanned systems, safety is going to be paramount. It will be the most important thing with everything else a distant second. That includes privacy, noise, visibility — what have you.
If these systems are not safe, you will not use them. Period.
These test sites will allow for the testing of different platforms and different mission package payloads. In a normal operation you will have to certify that the platform is airworthy and that the operator is certified or properly trained.
In some cases you might even certify the operational environment. For instance, in precision agriculture, you know the farm is 100,000 square miles. And in that space you know there are only seven houses, and “x” number of people at any point in time. What’s more, you can say that 400 feet and below there are zero fixed wings that fly in that airspace, and that literally no helicopters fly there.
You can articulate the operational environment where you can say the probability of an incident is very small.
Duran: What role does the public sector play in managing the airspace and supporting these innovators?
It all comes down to safety. And with any technology there are people that will misuse the technology intentionally or unintentionally.
What we want to understand is how to use this technology for all the good and positive it can bring.
Duran: Moving to the economic development community, what are these companies looking for when selecting locations for their operations?
Toscano: I am not part of the selection process, but if I had to guess, if you separated the United States with two lines going vertical and one line going horizontal, you would have six quadrants of the United States.
If you are going to operate these systems in the national airspace, you have to encompass all of the national airspace.
So in order to test all the operational spaces you have to be physically located in those areas. I think there is more of a regional aspect to this, beyond than these six sites. I think you should look at six different regions of the country and maybe the six test sites that are identified by the FAA will be the focal point.
I would hope there is encouragement that they include other capabilities. I believe every state should have a test site. Every state should be able to understand the economic benefits and understand their capabilities and resources.
For example, I would say most states have farms and agriculture. The locals understand the state’s environment, the laws, weather conditions, the population — all of the factors that go into doing something in a safe manner.
The states know this better than anyone else and they are going to be motived to do things in a safe and appropriate manner.
Duran: Unmanned systems hold great potential; highlight the commercial uses and public service uses.
Toscano: As a delivery system there is tremendous potential, whether you are delivering medicine, food, water, books, insect repellent — whatever you want to deploy. I like to say we do the four Ds: the dirty, dull, difficult and dangerous missions.
There is so much we don’t know about in regard to how this technology will be utilized that will cause these changes to take place in our world. We do them because they make us more effective, efficient, and in some cases, save lives.
So you are going to see a lot of activity in the civil sector, such as search and rescue and firefighting. It will be a useful tool. Two of the biggest areas are wildlife and weather monitoring.
For wildlife, the systems will assist us in understanding how to interact with other species on this planet, and how to avoid the extinction of some of the animals.
In regard to the weather, we can use the systems to understand different weather patterns, storms and volcanoes. The research will help us understand the planet we live on.
We know so little about our oceans. The exploration we can do with unmanned systems as opposed to manned systems, allows us to go to depths we haven’t gone to before, or go to where we have gone before, but only for a limited amount of time. These systems can spend days, weeks or months down in the water as opposed to just hours.
Other uses are in the forensics arena. When an incident takes place, say with law enforcement or forest fires, you can conduct forensics of the area before human beings enter the scene.
It creates situational awareness. The systems are lightweight and can be deployed in minutes. People know how to do their jobs better than anyone else. What you are giving them is an extension of their eyes, and ears, and in some cases, their hands.
There is no new emerging technology. Any of the sensors or mission package payloads or the cameras — they already exist.
Among other uses of unmanned systems are border and port patrols, film crews, real estate, aerial photography, and as previously mentioned, precision agriculture.
Duran: As advocates for unmanned systems, highlight some of the initiatives AUVSI is working on.
Toscano: One of the biggest ones is education and communication. We were [the industry] helped tremendously by Jeff Bezos based on the number of Internet hits and people that are talking about the technology.
We are part of the discussion. One of the biggest things we do is to make sure we get facts and figures and good information out.
When we are looking at safety data, you can speak to some of the reliability and some of the performances, so there are some data that can be utilized. However, the data we have for the UAS that have been flying in the past has predominately been on the military side, where the airspace has been restricted as opposed to unrestricted airspace. So the numbers do not equate; we are comparing apples and oranges.
So when you are talking about unrestricted airspace in an area where you have population — this is why safety is deemed critical.
Duran: What other initiatives are underway?
Toscano: At AUVSI we deal with air, ground and maritime so we are also looking at automated vehicles and things of this nature.
We are also working on who are all the players, whether it is insurance, legal or technical. There are still technical challenges. The top two that come to mind are power and energy. These are no different than manned systems but they become a little more important when you talk about unmanned systems.
If you want to fly something that weighs five pounds or 10 pounds for a day, it is different than how most of them right now fly from 30 minutes to two hours. If you want to have a longer endurance, you need a different power supply and energy supply than we have today.
Another area we work in is with secure wireless communications; the ability to ensure that someone doesn’t cause an ill effect, whether intentionally or unintentionally, whether it is jamming or spoofing.
So there is still technology development that needs to take place.
Duran: You want to make sure the cloud is secure.
Toscano: Yes, and I would say that is true with banking, email, and with any electronic device or anything that has a computer.
Manned cars have massive computer capabilities too; could someone jam those? The answer is yes.
Cyber is a huge industry and concern that we have because of all the electronic devices and the systems and the information that is available.
To learn more about unmanned systems, visit www.auvsi.org.
Illustration by Victor Habbick at Free Digital Photos.net