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Public, private investment seeks aviation advances

FAA awards research grants, private-sector drone pioneers team up

Public and private efforts to advance drone technology appear likely to help enable broader aviation advances, including automated aircraft carrying cargo or people.

Public safety operators of unmanned aircraft (including those who took part in a multiagency training exercise in upstate New York in 2019, pictured here) will be among the first to benefit from new rules allowing drones to fly beyond the remote pilot's line of sight without advance permission from the FAA. Photo by Jim Moore.

A $2.8 million FAA grant program funding research by five universities illustrates the potential follow-on effects expected from the development of key technology requirements. Just under half of that total will be awarded to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the University of Kansas, and the University of North Dakota to study and propose right-of-way rules for unmanned aircraft operations, along with safety recommendations and proposed standards for detect-and-avoid requirements. Mississippi State University and Wichita State University will roughly split a $318,958 federal investment in the study of composite materials used to make aircraft, applied both to drones and to advanced air mobility designs, research that the FAA called “critical for developing standards and regulations” in a September 27 news release. Embry-Riddle, Wichita State, and UND will also receive another $1 million divided among the three universities to identify flight data recorder requirements for drones and remotely piloted air mobility aircraft.

These universities have a long history of participation in federal research programs aiming to advance the capabilities and utility of aircraft flown by remote control, including drones used for infrastructure inspection and package delivery, as well as the coming wave of electric or hydrogen-electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) concepts being designed and built to carry cargo and people, along with more conventional adaptations of current aircraft with sustainable powerplant retrofits.

On the private sector side, Iris Automation, a developer of an onboard detect-and-avoid solution for drones that is now being adapted as an optional safety enhancing accessory for manned aircraft, announced a partnership with Volatus Aerospace, a global drone services and training provider based in Canada that holds various waivers allowing unmanned aircraft to be flown beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), a much sought-after capability that will eventually be established as a routine operation under FAA regulations. Today, such operations are allowed on a case-by-case basis via FAA-issued waivers, and Volatus holds waivers that allow it to offer BVLOS operational training to clients.

“Iris is a clear leader in this nascent industry preparing to take the right steps into Beyond Visual Line of Sight operations,” Volatus CEO Glen Lynch said in a news release. “This partnership enhances Volatus’ ability to expand across global markets and support a broader range of customer missions by enabling clients to obtain complex operational approvals and certifications.”

Iris Automation has come to describe Casia, its computer vision system, as a “proprietary perception engine” that has potential uses beyond detection, classification, and automated avoidance of nearby objects, a task at which it has excelled in real-world and simulated tests. It’s also a task that has obvious safety value as new kinds of aircraft begin sharing the airspace. (The manned aircraft version of Casia now being developed will provide aural alerts but will not have access to flight controls.) Iris Automation is also well acquainted with the aforementioned universities, having participated in various FAA research and development programs focused on drones.

Any dividing line that remains between manned and unmanned aircraft, in terms of the technology that will enable each to do more things, to operate more efficiently, or to more effectively respond to emergencies and disasters, continues to get harder to see.

Jim Moore

Jim Moore

Editor-Web Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: Unmanned Aircraft, Urban Air Mobility

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