Unmanned aircraft will be adapted for a wide range of civilian uses from firefighting to land management, but only after federal officials work out tricky regulatory challenges, experts predicted Wednesday after a drone flying exhibition at Santa Ana Pueblo.
Unpiloted aircraft now are used largely for military purposes while Federal Aviation Administration officials work out the regulatory difficulties of allowing them to fly near populated areas, New Mexico State University officials said.
Regulating unpiloted aircraft may prove as challenging for the FAA as the advent of jet engines after World War II, said Dennis Zaklan, deputy director of NMSU’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Test Center.
“This is the biggest thing the FAA has had to deal with since the 1950s,” Zaklan said.
Technicians demonstrated four unmanned aircraft Wednesday near the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort and Spa at Santa Ana Pueblo, where about 500 government, military and industry personnel attended a three-day conference on drone technology.
NMSU sponsors the annual Unmanned Aircraft Systems Technical Analysis and Applications Conference.
The cost of small, unmanned aircraft typically range from $50,000 to $500,000, depending on the model and accessories, Zaklan estimated. Some models can be purchased by the public in a form that renders them unclassified, he said. But for now, the FAA prohibits their use for any commercial purpose.
Unmanned aircraft “will see a transition from largely Department of Defense applications to civilian applications” much as jet aircraft transformed civilian aviation in the last century, said Dyke Weatherington, deputy director of unmanned warfare for the U.S. Department of Defense.
Just how quickly unmanned aircraft technology will be adopted for civilian use, “the jury is still out on that,” he said. But unmanned drones gradually are finding civilian uses, said Stephen Hottman, director of NMSU’s unmanned aircraft analysis center.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is assessing the value of drones as a land management tool at NMSU’s 15,000-square-mile airspace in southwestern New Mexico, Hottman said.
Fighting wildfires is a logical use for unmanned aircraft, which can identify hot spots and keep firefighters in radio contact in rugged terrain, he said.
Other potential uses include inspecting pipelines, mapmaking, aerial photography, remote sensing and even managing fisheries, he said.
Honeywell T-Hawk drones, developed in part by researchers at Honeywell’s Albuquerque plant, were used in April to conduct surveillance inside Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power station after an earthquake and tsunami damaged the plant, Hottman said.
T-Hawks are small drones that can take off and land vertically like helicopters. They were used to take photos inside the plant, where high radiation levels rendered the environment unsafe for workers, he said.
“They were able to fly in there and get an assessment without putting people in harm’s way,” he said.
— This article appeared on page C1 of the Albuquerque Journal