August 4, 2015
UTRC autonomy expert addresses National Academies' Research Roundtable

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Dr. Michael Francis, Chief, Advanced Programs and Senior Fellow at UTRC, provided his perspectives on autonomy and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) as part of a recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine-sponsored Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable (GUIRR) in Washington, D.C.

The event's focus, "Unmanned Air Systems: Use and Regulation," was, in large part, attributable to the recent rapid proliferation of small UAS in the U.S. and around the world. These aircraft, more commonly known as drones, weigh less than 55 pounds, carry no weaponry, and are intended for research, commercial or personal purposes.

Francis, who has a long history in the arena of autonomous and unmanned flight, was invited to speak on safety and security issues and concerns related to the introduction of these systems in civil airspace. His 45-minute address focused on topics that included current technology and its limitations, infrastructure needs, and constraints imposed by traditional airspace management methods and systems. He also commented on cultural factors influencing the current debate.

"The goal of the roundtable discussion was to consider practical policy strategies to enable the beneficial use of these small UAS for various missions and tasks within U.S. airspace, without compromise to the safety, security and the privacy rights of citizens," he explained. "UAS have many potential applications, from use by law enforcement agencies and first responder emergency crews to crop monitoring and maintenance, geological surveys, oil exploration, cinematography and scientific research, among others."

He added, "Understanding how to safely deploy these aircraft to maximize their benefit without infringing on traditional airspace users -- from commercial operators to recreational pilots -- is a hot topic at the moment. Small UAS are intended to operate at altitudes from 500 feet down to street level, thereby creating a potential hazard to people, automobiles and conventional aircraft, particularly if they are flown near airports. Much of this very low altitude domain had never been considered as usable airspace prior to the advent of these small machines. So it's critical we enact and enforce policies and procedures that are consistent with the capabilities of these systems, leverage their technologies in a positive way, and are focused on ensuring safety for all."

Francis went on to suggest that many of the enabling technologies, from digital flight control to machine intelligence, are currently in their infancy.

"As the technologies continue to evolve and mature, the range of mission capabilities and permissible environmental conditions will continue to grow, as well," he noted. " The regulatory system underpinning the nation's flight safety will need to be dynamic and responsive to change, lest it inhibit the ability to exploit the economic advantage that accrues from our leadership in this emerging technology arena."

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