Established airspace has accommodated space travel for decades. Drones and flying cars, not so long.
FAA, NASA, and the military have been working for decades on the development of rockets. Big military drones have been used for more than a decade to provide distant firepower for military action. Smaller unmanned aerial systems became prevalent around 2015. Flying cars have been around for decades, but only in cartoons. Today, they really exist.
Travelers United has worked with these new technologies since 2015. Our organization has kept pace with changes in the US space program that now is a major industry. Only 10 years ago, no one would have thought that rockets would take off and land to be reused. Drones were considered flying toys until FedEx, UPS, Amazon, and Google started delivery, surveying, and inspection operations. And the only flying taxis were imaginary. Today, they all exist.
The development of flight can move quickly. Integration of technology takes time, planning, and unified regulation.
The development of flight and space technology has been taking place for dozens of years. Now it is racing forward at a pace faster than even futurists could have imagined. Six men who have been working intimately on space operations, drone deployment, and flying car development discussed a fuller use of our national airspace. They are exploring space, integrating drones, and figuring how to get vTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) taxis into operation. Within ten years these new entrants into our national air space (NAS) will fly back and forth to space and provide under-400-foot altitude inspections and delivery systems.
A panel that spoke at the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) annual meeting discussed the sky’s future. It included FAA executives Jay Merkle, Executive Director, Office of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, and Wayne Monteith, Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation. Col. Horne from the US Space Force participated. Greg Bowles from Joby Aviation and Michael Moses, president of Virgin Galactic, discussed the coming integration of our skies as well. Finally, Dr. Parimal Kopardekar of NASA (better known as PK) served as the moderator.
Our skies will host far more than only airplanes. Rockets, drones, and flying cars will also share the wild blue yonder.
Until recently we have not had to share our skies with anything other than commercial and private aviation. Around 200,000 planes are registered, according to Statista. However, there are millions of UAS and drones that need to be integrated into the NAS. Soon there will be more. The FAA has created an air traffic control system that works for commercial and private aviation. However, it does not rapidly serve space development or the increase in low-flying unmanned aerial systems. Technology is not slowing down.
Rockets, drones, and flying cars are growing exponentially. By the end of this decade, more satellites will have been launched by a single US space firm than has been launched in the world since Sputnik. Millions more drones will be inspecting roofs, telephone lines, cattle fencing, farms, and skyscrapers. Plus, flying cars and taxis may start to fill the air.
Today, the FAA is focused on getting new regulations set to allow UAS operations over people. Regulations were in the past designed as almost one-off regs for specific aerial platforms. Today, regulations have to work for millions of operational drones — they are performance-based regulations. Safety information must be shared. Economic barriers to unmanned aviation must be eliminated. NASA has been working on Unmanned Traffic Control that must be created to work together with the manned air traffic control systems that move commercial aviation.
Our US Space Force researchers are already preparing to create regulations that will allow Rocket Cargo to take off and land internationally. Col. Horne also noted that good regulation provides assurance for entrepreneurs to dare change. Plus, it provides a framework for increased investments. The maintenance of space platforms and service satellites. Both are only distant thoughts today.
The panel discussed changes in the world and how quickly they take off
Ten years ago much of today’s UAS and eVTOL realities were dreams. If we look back at pictures of New York City in 1903 the streets were filled with horses. Ten years later the same streets were filled with cars. Cell phones were adopted by virtually the entire world in 20 years. But it took 120 years for the telephone to penetrate the world prior to the mobile phone. The DOD, FAA, and private industry are all working to make change easier and faster.
Some technology is not moving as fast as different industries would like. The radio spectrum is limited. That limitation has already caused problems with the command and control of airplanes and 5G telephones. Those issues have slowed the roll-out of major telecom programs. However, the spectrum question may also limit changes to the UAS world.
The message of the conference is that cooperation will be needed to move the fast-developing industries that will fill our skies forward quickly. Commercial aviation companies like airlines have enjoyed years of operation and an established air traffic control system. However, the world of UAS and drones has been in existence for only about 10 years. There are many regulations to be written and other challenges that must be overcome before the skies and space will truly be open to development. However, that time is near and America must be ready for change.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 12 years with Congress, the Department of Transportation, and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the first consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.