Unmanned Aerial Systems (“UAS” or “drones”)

Brief History and Development of UAS (“drones”) 

UAS or “drone” systems began life in military use for both target practice and operational roles in intelligence gathering and weapons delivery in the 20th century. Since the dawn of the 21st century, we have seen UAS applications expand rapidly into the civilian sectors of government and commerce.

The proliferation and miniaturization of the underlying technologies for UAS in the non-military context came about largely due to the mass production of smartphones, whose components form the basis for self-guided, sensing, autonomous systems. Specifically, the smartphone industry drove dramatic increases in both precision and miniaturization of MEMS (micro-electrical mechanical systems)–examples of which include accelerometers, gyroscopes and barometric pressure sensors. 

At the same time, access to low-cost, highly-accurate GNSS (e.g. GPS, GLONASS) sensors as well as cheaper, yet exponentially higher energy-density Lithium-based battery technology, fueled the growth and democratization of the RC hobby starting around 2010. Hobbyists took these technologies and applied them (using largely open-source hardware and software platforms) to land-, sea- and air-craft to yield an impressive array of powerful, small semi- and fully-autonomous systems, powered by quiet, relatively efficient electric motors.

National Airspace Concerns and Formal Regulation

Hobbyist drones became a staple gift item around 2012, such that anyone with a credit card and knowledge of Amazon could order a ‘drone’ (sUAS–”small” UAS) and ‘fly’ it. More traditional RC hobbyists were forced to learn the ‘hard way’ to follow safe practices, if for no other reason than a crash would mean a substantial loss in terms of money and time. There was little to no such incentive for this new army of drone enthusiasts.

While the drone ‘craze’ brought a large number of new ‘pilots’ onto the scene, there was little to no incentive for these new operators to practice safety with respect to their craft, people or property–precisely because the technology did almost all of the work of keeping the craft flying and not crashing into the ground. Unfortunately, it only took a few months after the mass marketing of consumer-level drones until incidents of restricted airspace incursion started. 

The FAA acted by heavily restricting the use of any remote-controlled aircraft, eventually rolling out a registration system for ‘drone’ operators, with the initial phase targeting hobbyists. It took a couple of years for the FAA to create a system for commercial drone usage, embodied in the Remote Pilot Certificate (14 CFR Part 107, https://www.faa.gov/uas/commercial_operators/).

The current round of FAA rulemaking involves “Remote ID” (see https://www.faa.gov/uas/research_development/remote_id/). The Remote ID system is a means of positively identifying and tracking individual, active UAS craft in the national airspace. The detailed technical means for this system are not yet fully developed, but it will largely make use of existing infrastructure. 

Specifically, it involves internet-based data protocols with the UAS connected via the cellular/mobile network. Data would be provided to a UAS Service Supplier (“USS”; basically, the tracking database operator; accessible by the public and law enforcement) by the individual UAS over a mobile network data connection. The implementation of this system could offer numerous research and development opportunities (see https://www.faa.gov/uas/research_development/remote_id/industry/).

Remote ID will support and further enable the integration of BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) applications for industry, such as widely anticipated package delivery services that can reach from a single launch location to an entire metro area. The impact of these capabilities on business models and the contours of the workforce are likely to be substantial over the next decade.

“Drone” Jobs

With the advent of the Remote Pilot Certificate, individuals can become commercial UAS pilots–not just military ‘drone’ operators. Many full time positions have been created in the last few years, and the industry appears to be positioned for sustained growth well into the future. Below is an example job listing in Virginia (June 2020). Please reference links below for more.

UAV Drone Pilot
Pay $25,000 to $30,000 Annually (plus commission)
Type Full-Time
Direct link

A couple of job search links:

In addition to the drone pilot positions, an entire industry is developing around the sector. Related fields include cybersecurity (analysts for hardware and remote systems), software and hardware engineers (drone development), among many other industries and roles, including but not limited to agriculture, civil engineering, general aviation, environmental regulation, et al. All of these positions will require experience and skills with UAS, whether or not they involve the direct piloting of the systems. Below is a current (June 2020) job listing for such a position.

Aviation Safety and Cyber Security Specialist
Air Line Pilots Association, Int'l.
McLean, VA 22102
Direct link

This post is a work in progress. Please contact me or provide comments if you would like to contribute.

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