Remote-controlled aircraft are changing the way we fight wars and they could dramatically change commercial aviation, but the Federal Aviation Administration won't allow commercial use of the planes until they are proven safe, and it's a problem researchers at the University of North Dakota are trying to solve.
Federal flight rules say a pilot is responsible for avoiding collisions with other aircraft, but what do you do when there's no pilot on the airplane? That requires new technology so that unmanned aircraft can identify and avoid other planes.
Unmanned aircraft in the U.S. will stay on the ground until the technology is perfected. In a lab at the University of North Dakota, researchers are building and testing the next generation of aircraft communications.
"We have something called the superhauler. It's basically a big radio controlled plane we put an autopilot into," said Electrical Engineering professor Richard Schultz.
This model plane on steroids has a wingspan of 12 feet and a top speed of 70 miles an hour. Schultz and his students use it to test their new technology.
Initially they thought global positioning satellites, or GPS, might help unmanned aircraft avoid crashes. But Schultz said that's not a reliable single solution.
"We were kind of shocked by how often various planes use their GPS link," he said. "Well, you can't talk plane to plane if you lose GPS, so can you talk by laser?"
One of the projects on a bench in the lab uses a computer, lasers and cameras. The laser beam sends out information about a plane's location.
Big aerospace companies already use this technology, but according to Schultz, the devices cost millions of dollars.
Schultz hopes to build a reliable device for less than $100,000. "It's got to be simple, it's got to work," he said. "And to be perfectly honest we've tested this twice and we're still not there."
But even if technology like this is successfully developed, there's another problem with the current air traffic system.
Not all airplanes communicate. Commercial passenger and freight aircraft have an electronic transponder, a device that broadcasts their position; they're known as cooperative aircraft. But small, private planes don't need a transponder. Richard Schultz said helping unmanned aircraft to identify those uncooperative planes is the big hurdle.
"How do you sense when things aren't cooperative? That's a really big problem," he said. "I'm not even sure it's a solvable problem, but it certainly is an interesting academic research problem. That's where the FAA gets really scared."
And convincing the FAA that unmanned aircraft can safely share the skies is the ultimate prize.
The small remote-controlled planes are relatively cheap to maintain and operate and there are a lot of potential uses. UND UAS Center Director Jeff Kappenman said unmanned aircraft could become a workhorse with infinite uses.
"It's essentially a truck. It's carrying a certain kind of sensor, a certain kind of camera, a certain kind of radio," Kappenman said. "The data it collects is more important than the aircraft itself."
Law enforcement could conduct surveillance and search and rescue missions. Researchers could safely track hurricanes and tornadoes without endangering human lives. Farm crops could be monitored and pesticides applied. They could even be a cheap way to haul cargo.
Customs and Border Protection agents already use unmanned aircraft to patrol the northern and southern borders. They operate under a special FAA waiver. A Certificate of Authorization (COA) is the only way an unmanned aircraft can fly in the U.S. and it imposes strict limitations on where and when the aircraft can fly.
But most unmanned aircraft will stay on the ground until the FAA is convinced they are safe.
Doug Marshall, director of program development for the University of North Dakota UAS Center, said it seems the FAA wants unmanned aircraft to meet a higher standard than aircraft with a pilot aboard.
"I might be making enemies by saying this, but nobody knows what the FAA wants," Marshall said. "Their official attitude is do no harm, whatever that means. Do no harm can mean a lot of different things and nobody really knows what it means. But that's the standard we're operating with."
Marshall said all FAA flight rules are written for planes with a pilot aboard. He said airlines, business aviation and private pilots are against any rule changes that benefit unmanned aircraft.
But FAA Air Traffic Organization Chief Operating Officer Hank Krakowski said safety must be paramount.
"Consider this. Some of these new aircraft are as big or bigger than the geese that hit the U.S. Airways flight over the Hudson," Krakowski said. "We can't have those aircraft meandering around the sky without some ability for collision avoidance and separation to occur. It's a work in progress, and we're delighted with what's going on in North Dakota, pioneering how we're going to do this."
Krakowski said the FAA is developing a satellite-based air traffic control system known as NextGen. He said that will make it easier to manage unmanned aircraft.
"It's hard for us to envision unmanned aircraft flying seamlessly in the air in the next five to eight years," he said. "There are so many technical issues we have to satisfy. Long term, the proposition of NextGen is the best potential solution for allowing a seamless use of unmanned aircraft in our airspace."
It will be at least ten years before the new air traffic control system is in place. Many in the fledgling unmanned aircraft industry don't want to wait that long to start commercial applications.
But UND electronics professor Richard Schultz said with new technology there's a fine line between pushing the envelope and taking unnecessary risk.
"I believe people should be a little bit on the maverick side to make this happen," Schultz said. "But there are fundamental limitations on what you can and cannot do technology wise. Because it is a maturing technology and all it would take is one crash and one loss of human life to ground everything."
Schultz is certain technology will be perfected and unmanned aircraft will be a common sight in the skies. And North Dakota will likely be one of the first places the new industry takes flight.