The Instant Eye small unmanned aerial system received approval last Thursday from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to be used by an energy company, which will conduct research, development and training to see if the system is practical for inspecting infrastructure such as pipelines, power lines and insulators on towers. It is the first unmanned quadrotor to receive FAA certification and may be the lightest aircraft ever certified. The approval opens the door for the system to be used for a wide range of commercial applications.
Instant Eye was developed by Physical Sciences Incorporated with funding from the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office (CTTSO), the Army Research Laboratory and the Defense Department’s newly renamed Emerging Capabilities and Prototyping Office.
A myriad of users have been trained on the system, and it has been delivered to special operations forces and deployed to the combat theater. In fact, Alan Shaffer, principal deputy, office of the assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, testified before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities that the system has proven itself in the combat theater. “We outfitted Instant Eye with an electro-optical camera and an infrared illuminator, bringing a field-repairable, overhead surveillance capability to the soldier in the field at a cost of less than $1,000. Instant Eye would go on to provide targeting information for the neutralization of seven insurgents waiting to ambush a U.S. patrol,” Shaffer testified.
CTTSO officials tout the system’s benefits. “It is appropriate for military force protection. The Army has been trained on it. It could be used for border patrol, the FBI or local law enforcement—the New York City police, for example, or even fire departments,” says Amanda Toman, personnel protection program manager, CTTSO.
But the system illustrates the conundrum of using unmanned systems within the United States. “It could fly as a toy, but when a system is government owned, it is FAA restricted,” points out Robert Newberry, CTTSO director. Newberry expressed frustration that when people think of drones operating in the United States, they often think of larger aircraft like the Predator. Smaller aircraft such as Instant Eye, which weighs less than a pound, however, pose less of a hazard, he indicates. The FAA has issued guidelines for private operators of model aircraft.
In order for local, state or federal government agencies to operate a drone within the United States, the FAA must approve usage in each individual case. First responders, law enforcement, FBI, border patrol, Coast Guard and others can use the system as long as they receive FAA certificates of waiver.
Sometimes, however, approvals take too long for emergency situations. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials wanted to use the system last year in the wake of mudslides in the state of Washington but could not gain approval to fly in time, says Tom Vaneck, vice president of disruptive technologies, Physical Sciences Incorporated. The DHS wanted the system to survey the damage, but a manned aircraft was already flying in the area, Vaneck recalls. “The first responders didn’t understand what they needed to do to get the airspace open. The FAA, wanting to maintain safety in the air, was taken aback trying to figure out how they could do it, and ultimately, we were not able to fly. It was a little frustrating because we certainly wanted to be there to help.”
Les Dorr, a spokesman for the FAA, says the agency has issued emergency certificates of waiver or approval for unmanned systems during emergencies, such as wildfire spotting and search and rescue, sometimes within a matter of hours. For example, last August the FAA expedited a request from the California governor’s office to allow the National Guard to fly a Predator to help fight wildfires in Yosemite National Park.
The energy company that has received approval will need to apply for another certificate if company officials decide to move forward. Vaneck describes the certificate approved last week as a “special type certificate.” It allows for research, development and training. If the company—which Vaneck declines to name for now—decides Instant Eye is beneficial, it will need to apply for a “restricted type certificate” that will allow the system to be used for commercial purposes.
Having the system approved once should make the process easier for others. “It was a big deal for us because it’s a long process to get through. Now that we’re through it, momentum can start building because we understand the process. We understand the FAA’s concerns, the kind of documentation that they require, so each successive one will get easier and easier,” Vaneck says. “That is our belief. We’re certainly going to test that. In fact, we just recently won a program with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and we’re developing a small unmanned aircraft for fighting wildfires.”
As one example of how the process should get easier, Vaneck cites the FAA requirement that aircraft have an owner/operator manual onboard. For a system with the “threat profile of a pigeon,” the requirement does not make sense, and the FAA waived the requirement, he reports. “Now that we’ve gone through it, we have a precedent and we expect they can apply that to all of our devices and we won’t have to apply for a waiver each time,” Vaneck says.
Instant Eye can be launched from behind cover and provides the individual user with instantaneous overhead video surveillance with onboard cameras. It features forward, 45 degrees and downward looking electro-optical cameras, the infrared illuminator for night operations, digital line-of-sight communication with a range of 1,000 meters and ruggedized propellers. Autonomous features allow it to hold position until repositioned, recalled or discarded.
In early June, the FAA approved the first-ever commercial drone for use over land. The BP oil company is now able to fly the Aerovironment Puma AE for surveys over Alaska’s North Slope. The agency also is currently seeking public comment on the use of drones for movie-making purposes.
Vaneck acknowledges that the FAA’s approval process receives a lot of criticism for being onerous, but he defends the agency. “We’ve enjoyed probably the safest air travel in our nation’s history, and they don’t want to do anything knee jerk that would potentially jeopardize that. I was scared to death going in, thinking this was going to be an onerous process and we’d never get through it, but when they explained why they were asking for the information they were asking for, it made sense, and they were very eager to work with us to get it done,” Vaneck states. “My hat’s off to the FAA.”