Drones Inch Toward Solo Flights as FAA Starts Weighing Requests

Drones are moving closer to long-range travel, far from operators on the ground, as federal regulators take the first steps toward clearing the vehicles to fly like conventional aircraft.

Those trips are still years away, and would-be users will need to show that they can avoid aerial collisions. But the Federal Aviation Administration has received requests to certify seven unmanned aircraft as being airworthy, the initial step toward getting big drones into U.S. skies.

“You could take a large aircraft through the certification process and operate it with limitations,” said Jim Williams, FAA’s chief of unmanned aircraft systems integration. He declined to identify the early applicants.

Once certified, the drones would be subject to the regular rules for aircraft, Williams said Tuesday in an interview at the annual conference of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Atlanta. Unlike the small drones favored by hobbyists, these craft could fly without new rules for U.S. airspace, at least while in sight of an operator, Williams said.

Before the drones can extend their range, manufacturers would have to prove that so-called detect-and-avoid technology is as good as a pilot’s eyes, Williams said.

Drones are stirring interest for commercial uses as diverse as airborne inspections, film making and cargo shipments. The FAA has been working on how to integrate unmanned aircraft into U.S. airspace, juggling demands from would-be drone operators and aviation interests including airlines.

Heavier Loads

Larger drones probably will be the first to fly long distances because they can bear the weight of sensors needed to avoid collisions. The FAA has proposed new rules for small commercial drones, which aren’t being given airworthiness certification, that limit their use to daytime flights within an operator’s sight and no higher than 500 feet (152 meters). Those rules may be completed within 16 months, Williams said.

For long-haul drones, companies will have to propose detect-and-avoid systems before the FAA can set a standard, Williams said. Once that benchmark is in place, drone-makers would have to provide test data to certify that the new systems work.

“They will have to bring those through the FAA certification process and demonstrate that they do provide an equivalent level of safety to ‘see and avoid,’” Williams said, using the industry description for how humans in the cockpit evaluate and evade aerial threats.

Dave Vos, chief of Google Inc.’s effort to develop drones for delivering packages, predicted that flights beyond line of sight will take a couple of years, not the decade that has been speculated upon in the industry. Detect-and-avoid technology already is approaching the levels of manned aircraft, he said.

Without a system that can detect other aircraft to avoid mid-air collisions, a certified drone would require “procedural separation,” or a flight plan that ensures no other aircraft will fly close by, before each operation, the FAA’s Williams said. That would limit the effectiveness of larger drones.

“That’s the technology that will open things up,” Williams said. “It’s the key to everything.”

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