Unlocking the potential of unmanned aircraft systems

The FAA’s announcement of six test sites for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) – coming on the heels of Amazon’s plans to launch Prime Air – has sparked public enthusiasm in this exciting new technology. UAS hold tremendous potential to revolutionize industries from agriculture to package delivery, and are already performing cutting-edge scientific research.

The Senate Commerce Committee is holding a hearing this week to examine the economic benefits of UAS technology. This timing is fitting, given that the FAA’s designation of the six test sites is expected to attract jobs and boost the economies of the states that will host the sites. Over the past year we saw intense competition between the 24 states who were vying for these sites in hopes of becoming the future centers of the UAS industry and the economic boon this would provide them.

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The jobs created by the launch of the test sites are just the beginning. Last year, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) released an economic report detailing the projected impact of the UAS industry. The report found that nationwide the industry would create more than 100,000 jobs and create more than $82 billion in economic impact in the first decade after integration.

The report also found that 80 percent of the UAS market will be in precision agriculture. Aerial surveying with UAS, which was often too expensive with manned aircraft, will save famers time over the old method of doing it on foot. New imaging technology, such as hyperspectral cameras, can be attached to UAS to help detect crop stress before it is visible to the naked eye. This means that farmers will be able to better target fertilizer and pesticides, increasing crop yields, saving money and reducing environmental impact.

UAS can also be used to spray crops. For more than 20 years, farmers in Japan have used Yamaha’s RMAX helicopter for precision crop dusting, pest control and fertilization. More recently, farmers in South Korea and Australia have been using this technology as well. Today, more than 2,600 RMAX are in operation, treating more than 2.4 million acres of farmland each year in Japan alone. Research has shown that using UAS for these applications can improve crop yields by 15 percent, increase net returns by $17 to $54 per acre, and reduce fertilizer use by as much as 40 percent.

But agriculture is hardly the only application for this technology. NASA is already using UAS to fly over hurricanes and through volcanic plumes, studying these natural phenomena in order to improve forecasting and save lives. A search and rescue team in Canada made news last year when they used a UAS to find a car accident victim at night, saving him from hypothermia. Other industries, from Hollywood filmmakers to oil and gas companies to real estate developers, have been clamoring to use UAS to help their businesses.

Proven products like the RMAX should be available for American farmers today, under the same kind of pilot training and operating restrictions used so successfully in other countries. Before UAS can be used more widely, however, there is still much work to be done by the FAA. Foremost among these is developing safety standards and procedures, which will be an important aspect of the work of the test sites. The industry looks forward to working with the FAA to develop these.

The industry, meanwhile, understands Americans’ concerns about privacy and is committed to ensuring the technology is used responsibly. AUVSI has already been working with privacy advocates, elected officials and federal regulators to address this topic. For example, we released an industry Code of Conduct to provide for the safe, non-intrusive use of UAS by members who test, design and operate them.

Likewise, the law enforcement community has embraced UAS guidelines from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) that address, among other topics, the collection and retention of images. Following their release, the ACLU applauded the guidelines, calling them “quite strong in some areas.”

These recent efforts build upon existing legal protections, notably the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and robust case law, which together have protected Americans’ right to privacy for more than two centuries.

As the integration advances, calls for new privacy protections will persist, and the UAS industry is open to further dialogue. However, these conversations must be platform neutral, treating manned aircraft and unmanned aircraft the same. That’s because privacy policies should focus on how data is collected and used, as opposed to focusing on the specific platform that is doing the collecting – whether it a UAS, manned aircraft or one of the thousands of street cameras in place around the country.

It is an exciting time for our country and industry. Congress and the FAA should act quickly to allow proven uses of UAS, like the RMAX, under appropriate operating restrictions that mitigate safety and privacy concerns, even while the FAA progresses toward more comprehensive integration. This technology has the ability to change the way agricultural and other industries work today, and possibly open up new ones in the future. We must work together to ensure that we are able to realize its full benefits.

Arcangeli is vice president of Corporate Planning for Yamaha Motor Corporation, U.S. and Toscano is the president & CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International, the industry’s leading trade organization.