The FAA predicts there could be 10,000 drones in the air over the United States within the next five years and is working closely with commercial stakeholders to define operational and certification requirements.
“Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and serve many purposes,” states a Federal Aviation Administration report assessing prospects for the industry. “Some have wingspans as large as a Boeing 737 and some are smaller than a radio-controlled model airplane.”
In the United States alone, more than 50 companies and organizations are producing 155 unmanned aircraft devices, the FAA report notes. Market research is projecting annual growth of 12 percent for the drone military market, but the growth may go even higher than that.
“There's just too much uncertainty,” Phil Finnegan, director of corporate analysis at the Teal Group, which monitors the aerospace industry, told CBS News last week. “There will be applications when the FAA opens up the airspace. The first ones will be law enforcement, then civilian.”
The FAA is in the process of developing new policies and procedures for the drone flights, and the Teal Group forecasts there will be more than $94 billion in total drone spending over the next decade.
Because many of the drones will be used for nonmilitary purposes, such as law enforcement and research, the FAA is working closely with the UAS community to come up with operational standards and requirements, the report said.
“It is critical to develop and validate appropriate operational procedures, regulatory standards, and policies,” the FAA said.
The agency has created an Unmanned Aircraft Program office to oversee the use of drones.
New Mexico State University's Physical Science Laboratory partnered with AeroVironment to study the safety of small, unmanned aircraft system operations at night in the National Airspace System. Study results strongly indicate nighttime operations of unmanned aircraft systems are safe, maybe even more so than daytime operations.
"We initially proposed to conduct live-fly demonstrations at night and twilight to assess the ability of the pilot-in-command and visual observer of a small UAS to acquire the UAS, other tracks or targets and make a determination as to potential collisions," said Doug Davis, project principal investigator and director of the Physical Science Laboratory's Global UAS Strategic Initiatives.
Igor Dolgov, assistant professor in the NMSU Department of Psychology and project lead experimenter, designed the study for NASA comparing the performance of unmanned aircraft observers, those who visually track the aircraft during flight, during daytime operations vs. nighttime operations.
Dolgov executed the study and conducted data analysis in partnership with AeroVironment and the Physical Science Laboratory team consisting of mission commanders Doug Marshall and Brendan Shaughnessy and ground control coordinators Luis Salas and Daniel Mendoza.
AeroVironment personnel flew the company's Raven and Wasp small unmanned aircraft systems for the study.
"There are currently significant restrictions on UAS night flights, which prevents a lot of agencies from utilizing them when they really need them," Dolgov said. "The goal of this study is to come up with a safety case, or set of parameters that would allow for safe UAS operation at night, which would open it up to law enforcement, homeland security, commercial and research applications."
The Physical Science Laboratory released findings of the night flight study report to NASA, who in turn released it to the FAA.