By Rudy Tardin
Anticipating the package of your latest online purchase, your eager self awaits for its arrival on the scheduled delivery date. Expecting a knock on the door or a ring of the doorbell, you instead hear an unfamiliar buzzing noise approaching your home. As the fluttering grows louder, you next hear a light thud outside of the front door. You open the door, and look out to see your package has arrived. However, looking around, there are no brown or white delivery trucks in sight. No delivery persons wearing brown shorts are spotted walking on the sidewalk down the neighborhood street. Instead, you look up to see a small, remote-controlled helicopter flying away.
Credit: Victor Habbick freedigitalphotos.net
Abroad, they are called drones, onboard pilotless aircraft utilized by the U.S. government for military purposes, among other uses. Domestically, these airborne machines are referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs, or unmanned aerial systems, UASs, which seem to be used interchangeably. The use of UASs for domestic, commercial applications could be on the horizon in the near future. But how realistic will it be for the general public to see a UAS in their daily lives for such services as package delivery?
The prospect of this reality has been hinted at recently. Appearing as a guest on a Jan. 23 episode of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” Missy Cummings, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, optimistically stated, “In five to 10 years, I think you’ll see FedEx and UPS unmanned aircraft flying our packages around.” Isolde Raftery of NBC News mentioned the possibility of delivery and law enforcement applications in a piece published on Jan. 29.
“All talk about who wants to use these systems is speculative until the airspace is actually opened,” replied Melanie Hinton, senior communications manager of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, in an email response. The association is a nonprofit organization focused on advancing unmanned systems in the international community. Hinton added, “The potential applications for UAS are literally endless.”
According to documents provided by Hinton, possible UAS domestic applications include but are not limited to news aerial coverage, broadcasting, industrial logistics, crowd control, event security, farming, real estate, law enforcement, power line surveying, all of which the public could witness with the fruition of domestic UASs.
However, all uses for commercial UASs remain on hold until the Federal Aviation Administration creates national airspace regulations. Congress is directing the FAA to integrate UASs into domestic air through the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, according to the FAA website.
Although illegal to fly any UASs for commercial purposes currently, the FAA grants special waivers to government agencies, public safety agencies, and universities to utilize the aircraft. When regulation opens up in the coming years, more commercial UAS uses can take hold, leading to the possibility of witnessing the aircraft in our daily lives.
Not so fast, said Mark Blanks, program manager of unmanned aircraft systems at Kansas State University Salina. Blanks oversees one of just a few college programs that now offer a bachelor’s degree with a focus in UASs. According to Blanks, he believes it could be “years and years,” if ever, that the everyday citizen routinely sees a UAS roaming through streets delivering anything including packages or pizzas.
This is a photo of the Penguin B model manufactured by UAV Factory, which is used by the Kansas State University Salina. The Penguin is sitting on a catapult ready for launch. Credit: Mark Blanks
Outside of current flying restrictions, Blanks said the devices have limitations as well. “There’s no way to see and avoid other airplanes,” said Blanks commenting on what he considers the biggest challenge for UASs.
Other limitations of the aircraft include weight and generating enough power to perform specific tasks and applications, according to Blanks, whose program works with UASs all less than 55 pounds in weight. As apart of the recent bill from Congress, the FAA will have test sites to help safely integrate UASs.
However, Blanks said that the current models he works with are relatively safe to operate, and are developed with customized functionality providing domestic versatility. Kansas State University students study courses that focus on UAS policies, piloting, operations, mission planning, and emerging technologies. Research projects such as agricultural and farm monitoring further educate students with a focus on more domestic applications, even though most graduates land military jobs, according to Blanks.
As anticipation grows for air regulations to open, schools start to offer more training programs, companies continue to design and build UAS models, and overall experimentation continues. It’s an almost certainty expanded UAS domestic roles will emerge soon, but in what capacity remains the question. Perhaps it’s then possible the delivery person is replaced by unmanned transport. Let’s just hope they are programmed to handle our packages with care.
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