Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are also referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or drones. In Europe, the term Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) is often used. Although these terms are used interchangeably, some authors restrict the use of the term “drones” to unmanned target aircraft that are used by the military or to any unmanned military aircraft, “UAV” may refer only to the aircraft itself, while “UAS” and “RPAS” may refer to the aircraft, onboard sensors and ground control station. No consistent categorization scheme has yet emerged for UAS.
Larger UAS may be comparable in size to manned aircraft, capable of covering thousands of kilometers, stay in the air for days and cost millions of dollars. Small systems (sUAS), defined here as less than 10 Kg, generally have a range of a few kilometers and are currently capable of flying for 0.5-2 hours. These sUAS are capable of carrying a wide range of imaging and atmospheric sensors and they are well within the budget of most researchers.
Although unmanned aircraft have existed for well over half a century, technical developments in this century have facilitated a dramatic expansion in the capability and utilization of these aircraft. UAS development has been primarily motivated and funded by military interests and application. As the use of unmanned aircraft by the military has expanded, many have recognized the potential for civilian applications of this technology. Furthermore, technical developments in unrelated fields (eg, computers, cell phones, electronic games, battery technology, digital cameras, GPS) have also facilitated the development of UAS.
As the civilian potential for UAS has emerged, the regulatory framework for facilitating the integration of UAS into the national airspace has been slow to develop. At the present time, FAA regulations are the biggest obstacle to more widespread civilian application of UAS technology.I will discuss our efforts over the past two years to navigate these regulatory hurdles and our use of UAS for environmental research and monitoring at Western Washington University.