In anticipation of the 8th international UVID Conference on unmanned systems, Conference Chairman Alon Unger discusses the future of the industry and the new domains unmanned systems are entering
By Alon Unger
For a number of decades, the field of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or Remotely Piloted Aircraft, has evolved and become a primary activity in the aviation world. Apparently, the rate of development has accelerated in the past year, and activities have expanded toward new domains, reserved for very few and substantial technological changes exclusively.
In 2008, at the annual civil aviation conference of the Fisher Institute for Air & Space Strategic Studies, I presented a novel concept – civilian applications for UAVs. Only a decade ago, this appeared to be almost delusional and many attendants at that lecture regarded it as science fiction. In those years, the breakdown into activity categories was simple: the military category – which included missions and systems mainly for overhead video and surveillance, and the civilian category – which reflected everything non-military.
In those years, the first buds of fixed-wing missions started to emerge. Most of them possessed characteristics that were similar to those of the defense world. As to the use of unmanned vehicles in the sea and ground domains – it was restricted to the defense world exclusively, and the scope of employment remained limited. Interoperability between the air, sea, and ground domains was not yet on the horizon.
Today, UAS operate in new domains with an extensive breakdown into different activities, which reflect various economic, technological, and legal characteristics and variables.
The traditional domain, which only included the military aspect, has evolved into the Defense and Security domain. Many security and emergency organizations currently use UAS as a major resource in the performance of their missions – firefighting, policing, search and rescue, correctional facility security, event security (e.g., the Olympic Games), etc. The characteristics of these missions, including their legal frameworks, are radically different from those of military missions and, naturally, from routine civilian missions undertaken by civilian and commercial organizations.
In the traditional defense/security domain, a dynamic process of development and growth is underway. More countries currently develop and employ UAS – even countries outside the western block, and they have practically created an arms race, along with changes in worldwide business competition. Beyond the direct defense/security derivatives, this generates such influences as pressures to revise international treaties regarding the proliferation of arms (e.g., MTCR = Missile Technology Control Regime) in order to compete with the ability to sell such systems worldwide. Additionally, the industry currently deals extensively with the counter UAS issue (solutions for threatening UAS, such as the Iranian UAS shot down over Israel). Back in 2012, the suggestion of employing UAS as a substitute for manned aircraft in air-to-air missions met with ridicule in response to an article I had published in IsraelDefense magazine. Today, this mission has been included as an objective to be accomplished by the end of the current decade.
The new civilian domain, which possesses tremendous economic potential and will directly affect our lives in the coming decades, has split into several sub-domains that reflect market segments possessing different characteristics.
These sub-domains include Government and administrative organizations such as municipalities that use UAS to enforce municipal tax collection and to video public events, and water and sanitation services that use UAS to monitor water reservoirs; Commercial organizations, which sell such services and solutions as deliveries of blood units, packages or food products; documentation and supervision of infrastructures such as bridges; video photography; extension of cellular communication options in disaster situations, controlled and precision agriculture, entertainment shows, etc.; Institutional organizations, which use UAS for such independent purposes as assistance for weapon system development trials; The private sector, which uses UAS for hobby, sport, and leisure purposes.
These domains have introduced into the “playground” new players and interested parties, who until recently had shown no interest or involvement in it. These players include legislative bodies such as the Israeli Parliament (Knesset), which currently deals with UAS through three different committees, of which one is a dedicated sub-committee of the Science Committee. Other players include academic institutions such as the Legal Clinic at the University of Haifa, venture capital funds seeking startup companies for investment, insurance companies, municipalities, business companies, institutions, and more.
A new nonprofit organization that was established in 2019 is the Israel Drones Alliance – IDA. Founded by Alon Unger and Eden Attias, the IDA is committed to Israeli UAV (drone) stakeholders for developing the national approach towards this domain.
Additionally, unmanned applications and technologies for the ground and sea domains have evolved in recent years, including systemic synergy between all of the setups – all the way to an examination of a standard for mission stations and a uniform communication protocol (STANAG = Standardization Agreement) for the systems intended for the various domains.
Terminology or Substance?
UAV, RPV, MRPV, RPA, RMV, UAS, drones. This set of terms is not just a series of acronyms representing a similar terminological world, as it also reflects the evolutionary process of a constantly developing field of activity and includes substantial differences in technology, legal and ethical aspects, which yield profound processes possessing substantial economic implications.
Israeli law (the Aviation Law 2011) uses such terms as Aircraft without referring specifically to the presence of a Pilot on board (inside) the aircraft and reflects the prevailing approach of the international world of aviation. This approach is consistent with the revision made by the Israeli Air Force about two years ago, when the term UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), coined in the mid-1990s by the IAF, changed to RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft).
Until the mid-1990s, these systems came under the name of UAVs and the human specialists operating them came under the name of “Flight Operators”. Apparently, the difference is merely semantic, but it reflects a substantive approach according to which a person – a “pilot in command” rather than an “operator” – stands behind these cutting-edge systems and is responsible for flying them. This approach is also consistent with the prevailing approach of the Israeli Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which revised its terminology from UAV to RPA, with the emphasis on “remotely piloted,” as opposed to “remotely manned”. It is also consistent with the concept of the US military, which uses the terms “RPA” and “Pilot” for the operators of the USAF’s Predator RPAs, who wear pilot’s wings and are treated the same as the pilots of manned aircraft, while the US Army refers to them as “Operators” of “UAVs.”
This change validates, both legally and ethically, the personal responsibility of the human user, but is it consistent with the technological development of unmanned systems? These systems have become increasingly autonomous in recent years, most certainly with regard to hundreds and thousands of platforms operating simultaneously in a synchronized manner (swarms), or pre-loaded with their mission program and operating without any monitoring in real time. What about the effect of this issue on the aspect of insurance and accountability in the event of damage?
The effect of this issue is profound with regard to the aspects of personnel resources and the training processes they undergo in order to qualify for an authorization to fly/operate these systems.
Today, RPAs account for 70% of all of the flight hours of the IAF and the number of persons trained to operate RPAs, annually, exceeds the number of qualifying pilots. This is substantially important and has a direct effect on the investments and resources required.
This is not the complete picture, however. When you add the multi-rotor (drone) revolution, which changed the face of civil aviation, along with the development of artificial intelligence, you will realize that the new domain is much more complex. Even today, there are in the State of Israel (and worldwide) more unmanned aerial platforms than manned platforms. Even today, technology and algorithms that operate without human involvement are already in use, providing a solution that is more effective and safer than any solution in which the human element is involved.
This reflects the profound technological change that guarantees availability for (almost) anyone possessing minimal aviation skills. On the one hand, the situation necessitates full legal responsibility (criminal, torts, etc.) while these systems operate within the airspace, but on the other hand – we are looking at a terminology world that is radically different from the one of the traditional aviation world, where the direct connection between pilot and aircraft was the foundation for everything.
The clash between the trends becomes evident, for example, during the employment of multi-rotor systems for military missions – the skills of the personnel and the types of missions are aimed, on the one hand, at the remotely manned terminology world, while the technology and the global business trend are aimed in the opposite direction. Practically speaking, the question that we need to ask is whether 3-day training is sufficient to enable a soldier to fly such a system within the airspace to execute a military mission.
Consequently, we should view the terminological discussion through a much wider perspective and realize that it reflects the profound change that takes place in the aviation world, especially with regard to the future. We should review it with regard to numerous aspects, including the aspect of the types of missions executed (military, civilian), the operating space (with or without visual contact/line of sight [LOS/BVLOS], populated or unpopulated areas, open or close space, and so forth). We should address the legal and ethical implications (killer robots, privacy) vis-à-vis the technical maturity of the evolving technologies. Accordingly, we should consolidate a comprehensive concept and must not adhere to a single conceptualization dimension, as it will fail to reflect the diversity and complexity of the subject matter.
At the same time, at this stage of terminological abundance, as we are interested in discussing the issue uniformly, as this article does, we may go back to the conceptualization of UAVs/drones and flight operators.
Preparing the 2019 UVID Conference – the eighth edition of the conference – has been particularly challenging and fascinating, more than with previous conferences, owing to the extensive diversity and dramatic development of this field in the past year. The primary challenge was how to assemble the program for the conference in a manner that would present the various aspects of this field of activity in a comprehensive, innovative and fascinating manner, all within the scope of a single day.
The UVID Conference is the traditional meeting place for all stakeholders in the field of unmanned systems in Israel, attended by Israeli and international leaders and decision-makers. UVID 2019, to be held for the 8th consecutive year, will take place on November 7th, 2019 at the Avenue Convention Center in Airport City, Israel. For more information about the UVID 2019 conference, click here.
Alon Unger is the chairman and founder of the UVID Conference, as well as co-founder and co-chairman of the Israel Drone Alliance (IDA)