Ten Things You Need to Know About Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS)

June 6, 2012

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  1. They’re not just military. We all know about Predators, but there are a multitude of civil uses ranging from tracking animals to emergency response. In most unmanned aerial systems (UAS) applications, GIS plays a vital role in flight and mission planning, data collection, analysis, data visualization and distribution.
  2. They can be called UAVs and drones, but UAS is the new preferred term. Face, it, “drone” just sounds bad. It used to be unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) but that has evolved to “systems” since it is clearly more than just a platform. UAS is the common term used to include an unmanned aerial vehicle and all of the ground control and communications infrastructure that is used to operate and receive data from the vehicle.
  3. There are a variety of platform designs. Fixed-wing planes and small copters are the best-known, but there are also blimps, nanocoptors and even solar powered planes. A Predator can cost tens of millions of dollars to buy and run, while a homemade system can run a few hundred dollars. The development of UAS has caused the industry to miniaturize many of the sensors. Sensors which are mounted to a UAV can range from digital imagery, gas particle sensors, radio frequency (RF) receiving and relay, but the most common sensor is a full-motion video sensor for either electro-optical (EO) or infrared (IR).
  4. There are a variety of sizes. While the big military drones are the size of commercial jetliners, there are tiny nanocopters that fit in the palm of your hand. These can be used to enter a building or small space after a disaster.
  5. The future is up in the air. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is tasked with developing a plan for how UAS will integrate with the National Airspace System (NAS) by 2014. Some developments are expected this year. The FAA is concerned about the separation of aircraft that are operating using visual flight rules and instrument flight rules. Since its inception, aviation has relied on the premise that a pilot is looking out of the cockpit of an aircraft to avoid a collision. The industry has been working for years to develop "see and avoid" technology that the FAA will accept as a replacement. The more risk a UAS poses to the aviation environment, the longer it will take for the industry to develop, and for the FAA to approve its use. One basic premise which the FAA has accepted is that a small UAS, weighing less than 4.4 pounds, which is operated below 400 feet, more than 5 miles from an airport, and under the direct control of an operator, poses a very low risk to the aviation community.
  6. NASA and USGS have them. In addition to small flying UAS and balloons, NASA has a Global Hawk that can fly over the North Pole from its California base, and USGS has a fleet of military surplus UAS for environmental studies.
  7. It’s expected to be a big business. The numbers are all estimates and all very large. The number of U.S. domestic uses is sure to explode once the FAA rules are clear.
  8. Your local police department may be the first user in your community.  The first groups to gain FAA approval (this year) will be law enforcement, search and rescue, scientific, and disaster support.
  9. The big UAS conference is in Las Vegas this year.  In August.
  10. The next UAV-geomatics conference is in 2013. In Rostok, Germany. 

Editor’s Note: Jay Parrish will participate in a webinar that will address UAS technology along with other current remote sensing topics on June 7. Register today.


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