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Kansas State University UAS experts offer insight on new FAA initiatives

Thursday, May 7, 2015

MANHATTAN — The Federal Aviation Administration announced two new unmanned aircraft systems initiatives on Wednesday, May 6, at the Unmanned Systems 2015 conference in Atlanta. 

Two Kansas State University Salina faculty members — Kurt Barnhart, associate dean of research and engagement, and Mark Blanks, UAS program manager — are attending the conference and have shared their comments on what the announcement means for unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, and K-State Salina's UAS program.

FAA announces new B4UFLY smartphone app
Expert name: Kurt Barnhart
Expertise: UAS faculty member at K-State Salina, speaker, author/editor, program administrator
Website: K-State Salina's Unmanned Aircraft Systems program

What is this new app?
"Although most people never think much about it, the U.S. owns and manages the most complex and busiest airspace system in the world. With the proliferation of inexpensive recreational small unmanned aircraft, they are becoming ubiquitous and often operated by those with no knowledge of our airspace system and the potential hazards created by operating these systems wherever they wish."

How will this new app work?
"The plan is for users to have an app they can go to and input the locations and altitudes they wish to fly. The app will then interface with existing FAA airspace information systems to determine if the intended flight location is safe for operation. The app will give the user a visual and textual description of why, or why not, the intended operational location is either safe or not. Users will be alerted to their proximity to an airport, overlying controlled airspace, or other flight restriction areas."

Why is this new app important?
"With widespread use this could help lower the risk of otherwise uninformed UAS operators creating a hazard by the operation of their aircraft. It is really an easy way for users to navigate a maze of otherwise complex FAA flight information; without this app, frankly most operators won't bother to find that information."

How can this new initiative benefit Kansas State University's UAS program?
"Students will be informed of the availability of this app and will learn how to use it for any operation they undertake."

When will the app be available?
"The app is expected to be introduced to the app store by late summer for iOS users only and only to 700 initial beta testers based in sign-up instructions issued at the press conference. By being there for the announcement it is expected that K-State will have multiple users to serve as some of those testers. Although it was mentioned at the press conference, a date has not been targeted for the release of an Android version of the app."

New Pathfinder Program to expand UAS operations
Expert name: Mark Blanks
Expertise: UAS program manager; speaker; Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, or AUVSI, board member; researcher
K-State Salina's Unmanned Aircraft Systems program


What is the new Pathfinder Program?
"The FAA has taken a step toward expanding small UAS operations beyond the limitations in the recent proposed rule. The Pathfinder Program will open up the conversation dramatically between the FAA and industry to find solutions to significant operational challenges for small UAS. The companies partnering with the FAA will lead the rest of the industry toward creative methods of lowering barriers for true UAS integration into the National Airspace System. Particularly, these companies will explore safe methods for conducting small UAS operations over urban areas, in extended visual line-of-sight and beyond line-of-sight applications."

What companies have partnered with the FAA and why?
"The three companies partnered with the FAA are CNN, PrecisionHawk and BNSF Railroad. CNN will investigate safe methods for news reporting in urban areas. PrecisionHawk will pursue means for safely conducting small UAS operations over rural agricultural areas that are farther away than the pilot can see directly. BNSF will look for novel ways to conduct safe UAS inspections well beyond human line-of-sight."

What are some of the benefits and challenges related to these expanded operations?
News reporting in urban areas
: "The very nature of news reporting often involves large crowds or very densely populated areas. Current limitations on UAS operations prevent flights over people not involved in the operation because they could potentially be harmed if the aircraft fell out of the sky. Authorizing these types of flights would open the door for many news outlets to gain a new perspective on breaking events as they occur. The challenge with this application will be in proving the reliability of the aircraft is great enough to not increase bystanders' risk of injury versus an alternative solution. This means the aircraft will need to maintain reliable communication with the pilot at all times and have a very low chance of suffering system failures."

Extended visual line-of-sight over rural areas:  "The current requirement to keep all UAS flights within visual line-of-sight of the operator means that the location, orientation and direction of travel for the aircraft must all be readily identifiable. Additionally, the operator must monitor the surrounding airspace for other air traffic to avoid collisions. The concept of extended visual line-of-sight operations would allow the direct visual contact with the aircraft to be broken, while still being able to see the surrounding airspace to prevent collisions. This means that the aircraft could fly farther from the operator and collect more agricultural data per flight. However, the challenge will be in proving that an equivalent level of safety to direct visual contact is still maintained and there isn't a greater risk of collisions with other aircraft."

Beyond visual line-of-sight over rural areas: "The inspection of railroads typically requires long distance flights to cover many miles of track. Instead of having to launch and recover an aircraft every mile or so, beyond visual line-of-sight operations would allow for numerous miles to be inspected per flight. The main challenge will be in providing separation from other air traffic. This may require very strict operational limitations on altitude or mandate a new type of sensor that can sense and avoid another aircraft."

How can the Pathfinder Program benefit Kansas State University's UAS program?
"The new Pathfinder Program will benefit K-State and the industry as a whole by expanding the capabilities of small UAS and making many applications more economically viable. The direct result to the K-State UAS program will be increased job opportunities for students and potential new research paths for university researchers."


Jennifer Tidball