Last week, the Senate finally voted through a new long-term spending authorization for the Federal Aviation Administration and in the process opened up the market for civil unmanned aviation systems (UAS).
The main provision in the FAA bill, now before the President for signature, is an $11B upgrade to the US air traffic control network from radar- to GPS-based. This will allow for a near 50% increase in air traffic over the next decade and opens up enough capacity in the skies to allow commercial UAS flights.
With that in mind, the bill currently says that the FAA must put in place an appropriate approvals, regulatory and operational infrastructure by the end of September 2015.
The UAS industry is, to put it mildly, thrilled. Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, told his organization’s website:
“I’m confident that once people can fly UAS in the national airspace for civil and commercial purposes, such as oil and pipeline monitoring, crop dusting, and search and rescue, a whole new industry will emerge, inventing products and accomplishing tasks we haven’t even thought of yet.”
Research by the Teal Group forecasts that the UAS sector “will more than double over the next decade from current worldwide expenditures of $4.9B annually to $11.5B, totaling just over $80B in the next 10 years.”
The opportunities for electronics design are numerous and the kind of avionics and sensing applications already prepared for military UAS, such as the USAF’s Predator drones, could be only the beginning. Apart from wireless systems, there is also likely to be demand for more lightweight sensing payloads to fulfill the burgeoning applications envisaged by Toscano.
The one potential restraining factor here, though, is civil liberties. The FAA authorization bill sets a timetable – including that the first US civil UAS test sites should open a mere six months after it’s presidential sign-off – but does not address any concerns that groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union are already raising. Indeed, many engineers would probably also see a sin of omission here.