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AUVSI President & CEO Michael Toscano

Notes from the "Air Day" (5 November) of the AUVSI's Annual Program Review

AUVSI President and CEO Michael Toscano kicked off the Air Day by encouraging the AUVSI faithful to engage with their political representatives to make UAS in the NAS a reality.  Mr. Toscano noted that while the FAA recently granted seven interim/provisional licenses for limited operations associated with the entertainment industry, there remain over 100 similar requests in the FAA queue for adjudication.  Toscano told the packed room that AUVSI currently boasts its highest-ever level of corporate membership, that this year’s Annual conference in Washington DC was the largest ever, and that things look good for another successful Conference in May in Atlanta.

Chris Bertram, Majority Staff Director on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, provided a perspective from Capitol Hill. Mr. Bertram:

·      Related that the issue of unmanned aircraft systems operation in the national air space (UAS in the NAS) is “is front and center” and is an issue that Members talk about.

·      Encouraged AUVSI to consider this (UAS in the NAS) issue in the broader context of the overall modernization of the U.S. air traffic control system (NEXT GEN) and to understand that UAS in the NAS will only be truly and effectively achievable in the context of this broader FAA modernization. 

·      Reminded the audience that there was no a single commercial aviation casualty in the past year and that the FAA is rightly proud of the success it has enjoyed in this respect.  He described UAS in the NAS is “a very tough issue for the FAA,” a “very disruptive technology idea for an organization with hundred years of airspace regulation behind it.”

Dyke Weatherington, the Pentagon’s Principal Director for Space, Strategic and Intelligence Systems painted his usual bleak picture of the fiscal outlook confronting the UAS portfolio and stressed the imperative for the community to focus on affordability.  This cost imperative, he noted, applies not only to industry, but also to Government/program officials, who must stop launching programs that we cannot afford to finish.  At the same time, Mr. Weatherington mounted a defense against recent criticism of UAS safety, noting that DoD unmanned systems have a lower Class A accident rate than such venerable manned platforms as the F-16 fighter and reminding the audience that not a single fatality has resulted in the past twelve years of UAS operations.  The single injury incurred, he added, as a ground accident when a man walked into the prop of a Hunter UAS. 

Colonel Courtney Cote, the Army Program Manager Unmanned Aircraft Systems (PM UAS) provided a review of the status of the Army’s current UAS programs of record, including:

·      Group 4 – Six Gray Eagle companies have been fielded and the Army continues to field the system at the rate of two per year through 2018.  In addition to standing up new systems, the Army is also focused on fielding Ground Based Sense and Avoid (GBSAA) systems at five Army sites to enable the Gray Eagles to fly within the U.S.

·      Group 3 - Shadow systems are just emerging from Follow-on Operational Test and Evaluation (FOT&E) for version 2 of a tactical data link to migrate those systems in the Army’s Aviation Brigades to integrate Manned-unmanned teaming.

·      Groups 1 & 2 (Smalls) – Ravens and Pumas are supported Programs of Records and PM UAS has also validated a requirement for a new Short Range Micro (SRM), for which the Army has identified a desire for small VTOL aircraft capable of “perch and stare” operations.  The SRM program launch will be “subject to funding availability” – which is a polite way of saying that the program will need to compete against other Army aviation priorities.

Michael Erk, Deputy PEO Unmanned Systems and Strike Weapons - PEO(U&W) within the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) related that the mantra for his office in the current environment is “payloads over platforms” and he underscored the imperative to quickly get payloads and sensors in and out of systems.  Mr. Erk offered the following observations:

·      The BAMS-D demonstrator program, launched in 2008, is still operating and is likely to stay out there until the Program of Record (the MQ-4C TRITON) gets out there.  TRITON is in testing right now. Early Operational Capability (EOC) for the MQ-4C is planned for the 2017 timeframe and the Program of Record is to buy 68 systems.

·      The Request for Proposal (RFP) for the Unmanned Carrier Launched Aviation Strike System (UCLASS) “is ready to go” but under final evaluation at OSD.  “Hopefully by the end of the year we will know” he stated.

·      While the (Group 4) K-MAX Cargo UAS demonstration successfully moved over four million pounds of cargo for the Marine Corps in Afghanistan, those aircraft are back now with Lockheed Martin in Owego, NY and there are no plans for a formal Program of Record.

·      The Navy intends to purchase 30 MQ-8B Fire Scout VTOL UAS (based on the Schweitzer) and 40 MQ-8B Fire Scout VTOL UAS (based the Bell 407 helicopter).  These MQ-8B platforms – which will be focused on Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) deployment -- will offer longer endurance, accommodate larger payloads, and will be more reliable.

USMC Colonel Eldon Metzger, who manages the Navy/Marine Corps STUAS System Program Office (PMA-263), notes that the Marines saw Early Operational Capability (EAC) RQ-21A Blackjack UAS perform well in Afghanistan are already planning to enhance the system with an new engine, a BLOS TCDL, maritime radar, SAR/GMTI and EO/IR turret refresh.  He adds that PMA-263is also working on developing and fielding Group 1 (Raven, Puma, Wasp) systems with a new common controller, communications relay, and solar cell/fuel cell.

Col. Thomas von Eschenbach, Director, Army TRADOC Capabilities Manager Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) conveyed that Army doctrinal thinking about UAS employment – from the smallest to the largest platforms -- is focused on how and where the Service can utilize UAS.  By this he means moving beyond Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Target Acquisition (RSTA) roles to missions including signals intelligence, communications, as well as electronic and kinetic attack.  Colonel Eschenback, when asked, was dismissive about the prospects for utilizing UAS as lift assets, noting that “there are lots of ways to see stuff and shoot stuff, but there’s only one way to move stuff” referring to traditional Army cargo helicopters such as the CH-47.  When pressed, Eschenback underscored that while continued R&D on the application of VTOL UAS to this mission “is good business” he underscored that “there is not a capability gap” and stressed that in order for the mission to transition to UAS, some organization would have to give up people, a development he does not see occurring.

Mr. Jim Williams, the Manager of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office outlined that, far from dragging its heels on UAS integration, the FAA has made considerable progress.  Mr. Williams noted that:

·      The FAA in May 2014 received the first petitions for exemption and in September the FAA approved the first exemptions under the “333 provision” for six movie/filming companies, followed by a seventh exemption.

·      The FAA has received 117 applications for exemptions and is moving forward with them more quickly that the first tranche, as precedent has been established.

·      “The next priority is to get a fixed wing [exemption] out there” and the FAA is trying to streamline the process and make it as routine as possible.”

·      Industry can expect the draft rule by the end of the year.