In the next two years, I predict that unmanned aerial systems will have major impacts on society. The current applications of commercial UAVs are largely limited to visual line of sight VLOS operations. This means that the pilot in control must be able to see the unmanned aircraft at all time during a flight. However, most UAVs already have the ability to operate autonomously beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). Even though regulations within various civil aviation authorities have not made provisions for BVLOS operations, there are exemptions given to manufacturers and operators testing out BVLOS flight operations. The more successful the tests that are carried out to prove the safety and viability of operating UAVs without the limitation of pilots being present in the operational theatre to watch the UAVs the sooner new forms of UAS applications can be implemented. In addition, advancements in safety designs, collision avoidance, broadband command and communication link and real-time tracking will enable new breed of applications such as cargo delivery, persistent security surveillance, meteorology, forest fire monitoring and wildlife and conservation monitoring to mention just a few.
The airspace in most regions is regulated to ensure safety and compliance for both manned and unmanned aerial operations. Civil aviation authorities around the world have began working with UAV manufactures and operators on regulatory compliance to integrate UASs into their airspace. This integration includes managing UAVs through air traffic controls. Learning from, and leaning on the success of manned aviation, UASs will be integrated into the airspace easily because the infrastructure for communicating with air traffic controls is already well established. This infrastructure can be built upon or modified for UASs. There are various efforts underway, includng those by NASA (Poss, J) and Unifly (Antunes, 2017), to build unmanned traffic management systems (UTM) that can be integrated with manned air traffic control. This means that UAVs will be able to fly and share the airspace with manned aircrafts at various level because the operators will be able to communicate with one another in realtime to ensure safety. An integrated UTM will lead to better control of beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations of UAVs.
In addition to UTMs, the implementation of robust remote fleet managements for UASs will be a boon for the adoption of BVLOS operations. Instead of having one pilot per UAV, in the future there one pilot located in at a control bunker could control and manage more than one UAV. This will cut down on the cost of operation and increase productivity in flight management. Fleet management systems could be used as dispatch systems and job coordinators where the progress of a UAVs mission can be monitored in real time with the capability if updating the mission parameter at anytime. Real-time fleet management systems as well UTMs will usher in BVLOS operations that are not possible today.
UAS will be able to takeover some of the tasks unmanned space vehicles such as satellites such as localized broadband communication networks, wild-life tracking, sensor network data uplink. For example UAS can be used in applications that have, traditionally been the domain of satellites because of it will be much more cost effective and agile. For a UAV equipped with the right wireless transceivers could be used in gathering data from distributed sensor networks such as pipeline sensors (Jawhar et al., 2014) and wildlife tags.
There is so much discussion in the media about drone delivery. In the future this could become a mainstay in various forms where UAVs will be used as cargo transports. Small to medium size cargos could be transported across regions where land transportation is simply expensive due to congestion or inaccessibility. For example transporting medical supplies and disaster relief provisions to victims in remote areas, delivering packages to distribution centres and moving work materials and equipments from one work site to another.
In conclusion, the future of UAS is bright because it is an evolution of manned aviation extended to domains where using manned aviation will be cost prohibitive or unfeasible. Very expensive and infrequent tasks performed by manned aviations will be replaced by more agile and relatively inexpensive UASs.
Antunes, J. (2017, May 25). Unifly to Provide a UTM System to the US Drone Aerospace. Retrieved from https://www.expouav.com/news/latest/unifly-utm-system-us-drone-aerospace
Jawhar, I., Mohamed, N., Al-jaroodi, J., & Zhang, S. (2014). A framework for using unmanned aerial vehicles for data collection in linear wireless sensor networks. Journal of Intelligent & Robotic Systems, 74(1–2), 437–453.
Poss, J. General Overview: NASA UTM Conference. Retrieved on 2017, July 30 from http://insideunmannedsystems.com/general-overview-nasa-utm-conference