At MAPPS Winter Conference

LightSquared moves to the backburner as UAVs and lidar/FAA move to the forefront.

By Neil Sandler

Lightsquared’s year-long battle with GPS manufacturers moves to the backburner at least for the moment, and two new battles move to the forefront, according to presenters at the Winter meeting of MAPPS, January 22-26 in Phoenix, Ariz.
Not that the LightSquared broadband proposal is necessarily over, but at last week’s meeting, leaders of the profession identified and discussed:
  1. the looming challenges presented by the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) recent ruling on the use of lidar in aircraft for mapping and
  2. the prospects of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) gaining permission to fly in commercial U.S. airspace.
The first of the two challenges pertains to the FAA’s ruling that lidar, when used on aircraft, is considered a laser pointer and thus falls under the restrictive use of very limiting federal laws.
The second challenge is the likely acceptance by the FAA of the use of UAVs in commercial airspace later this year.  One major concern addressed at MAPPS is, if the use of UAVs is approved nationwide, how can private aerial mapping firms compete equitably against government agencies that provide the same services?


 On January 13, a federal committee composed of representatives of nine federal agencies ruled that LightSquared’s plan to create a nationwide broadband network will cause damaging interference to GPS satellite-based navigation applications.  No additional testing is currently planned by the federal agencies.
Jim Kirkland, general counsel and vice president of Trimble and a founder of the Save Our GPS Coalition, described the process that opponents to the LightSquared proposal used to wage their battle.  While most of Kirkland’s comments were “off the record,” he agreed that it was very helpful that his side had a “concise and credible message” that they supported with hard evidence presented to members of Congress and their working staff. 
“When company executives come to Capitol Hill expecting to meet with their Senators and Congressman, yet end up meeting with a 25-year-old staffers, they must understand that that is generally time well spent”, Kirkland said.  Staff members generally spend considerable more time getting to understand the issues at hand and have a better feel on what to recommend to their Senator or Congressman, he explained.

Lidar = Laser Pointers?

Pat Olson of AeroMetric described how the FAA authorization bill pending in Congress would make directing a laser pointer at a member of a flight crew a criminal offense.  The legislation’s definition of a laser pointer includes lidar, even though it does not have the potential to impair or interfere with pilot or crews.  In the  summer of 2011, FAA ruled that existing law prohibiting interference with flight operations could be used to prosecute individuals using laser pointers.  The FAA ruling did not include a definition of lasers. 
Complicating matters, the FAA issued strict guidelines on the transfer of lidar equipment onto helicopters, formally known in FAA as “rotorcraft.”  MAPPS, working with Rep. Tom Petri (R-WI), chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee, secured an opinion from FAA’s general counsel that safe operation of lidar is not criminal.  The experience of MAPPS, reported in Phoenix, was that the counsel’s ruling was not being followed by FAA field staff.
Roger Hanson of Merrick & Company said, “nothing in the past year has caused me greater anxiety and lost sleep than this issue.”  On one occasion, moving a sensor from a fixed wing aircraft to a helicopter has “effectively shut us down for two weeks, delaying the acquisition of an urgent project.”
Ironically, he noted, the Airport Engineering Division of FAA’s Office of Airport Safety and Standards recently endorsed the use of lidar in airport mapping projects. MAPPS recently sent a letter to the FAA requesting action to produce a consistent and uniform policy on the safe use of lidar. 
Hanson said the resulting confusion and anxiety within the lidar community needs to be allayed. What needs to be addressed quickly, he said, are the inconsistencies in various rulings and more effective and constructive FAA communication with manufacturers and service providers.
Jim Van Rens, president of Riegl USA, stressed that “the lasers used in lidar are designed to provide protection to the operators, flight crews, passengers, ground maintenance personnel, and civilians. Issues such as laser safety, electromagnetic and radio interference are taken into account in the design and manufacture of the systems.  These systems have been airborne for over 15 years without a single incidence of a problem as identified by the FAA,” he said.
Van Rens said MAPPS members need to push for the waiver of rotorcraft directorate enforcement and the issuance of a detailed information bulletin allowing installation of airborne lidar systems.
AeroMetric’s Olson warned the audience, “those of you who fly fixed wings better not be asleep, because once they’re finishing with rotorcraft, we’re next.  We’ve got to get to the right people to be heard.”

UAVs: Opportunity Won or Lost

 Discussion about the pending entry of UAVs in commercial air space is almost everywhere these days.  Later this  year, FAA is expected to unveil a policy to permit UAVs to operate in U.S. air space. Jeff Shelton, Boeing’s senior manager of business development for unmanned airborne systems, told members of MAPPS that “Boeing believes that UAVs are the wave of the future.”
As a result, and in a break from traditional corporate strategy, his company is developing UAV systems for which there are not yet orders.  Shelton described Boeing’s considerable UAV fleet and predicted tremendous growth in the civilian marketplace.
Jerry Proctor, of the U.S. Army’s Center of Intelligence at Fort Huachuuca near the Mexican border in Arizona, said his base is the center for the Army’s UAV training.  More than 9,000 students have been trained on UAV systems. 
Proctor said most of the focus today is on improving the sensing systems used on UAVs.  What is possible is almost mind boggling, he admitted.  Yet he believes that in a short amount of time the military’s use of UAVs will become a subset of the commercial sector.  He spoke about the half-dozen states that are being identified as home to UAV test facilities.
Ruedi Wagner, vice president of imaging for Hexagon, parent company of Leica Geosystems, said the challenges of the introduction of UAVs into commercial airspace are similar in Europe as in the United States, including the certification of systems standards and safety assurance. 
In his native Switzerland, UAVs are being used to patrol the nation’s borders. Other uses in Europe include law enforcement, forest fires, coast guard, powerline and pipeline security, and Earth observation. Wagner emphasized that niche markets are being and will increasingly be developed for the use of UAVs.
Jeff Lovin, director of geospatial services and vice president of Woolpert, said the use of UAVs will become increasingly vital to land surveying and mapping firms.  He
outlined the state of Ohio’s vision to “be the pathfinder to enable the FAA to solve the problem of integrating  UAS (unmanned aerial systems) into the National Airspace System. 
Ohio’s Department of Development has further set a goal of making Ohio “the destination of choice for all UAS developers, manufacturers, suppliers, training, and education.”  He outlined numerous opportunities (such as existing air defense facilities) that exist in Ohio.


About the Author

  • Neil Sandler
    Neil Sandler
    Neil is publisher of the magazine.

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