By Dr. Andrew D. Shepherd, Executive Director and Chief Scientist, Sinclair College National UAS Training and Certification Center
The continued development of regulatory frameworks around the world has enabled the quick adoption of Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), commonly known as drone, technologies across an ever-growing range of applications. Many of these implementations have become straightforward given the utility and ease of use made possible through cost effective and capable consumer grade and professional aircraft, sensors, software, and support equipment now on the market. Much can be accomplished under established guidance or waiver processes including Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 107, which is issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Following these regulations, commercial operations supporting a broad range of activities in real estate, inspections, mapping, precision agriculture, environmental studies, first responder deployments, and many other missions are easily understood and within reach of professional operators.
However, there are still many benefits to be realized through the full integration of UAS in the National Airspace System (NAS) in the United States and elsewhere in the world. The ability to operate civil UAS at night, over populated areas, at higher altitudes and faster speeds, and at distances beyond the view of the operator without the need of restrictive waivers to regulation promises to increase the utility and effectiveness of UAS many times over.
The challenge is it is difficult to gain experience in these operations in general, a task made more demanding when they are specifically tailored to desired use cases. However, this is vital to inform the further development of regulation and policy to make the complex missions more common.
One way to develop, test, and implement Concepts of Operation (ConOps) related to UAS in complex operational or regulatory limited environments is to leverage Live, Virtual, and Constructive (LVC) capabilities. In LVC research or mission focused environments, live assets involve real participants operating real systems, virtual components include real participants engaging through simulated systems, and constructive elements involve simulated actors and systems. All three component types of a LVC exercise are integrated using software and appear to be operating in the same environment. Live assets may include traditional or unmanned aircraft transmitting telemetry or Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B) positional information and video from sensors, cellular position inputs from ground vehicles and dismounted personnel, or stationary sensor feeds. Virtual components can include participants operating simulated traditional or unmanned aircraft, controlling computer generated sensor feeds, or interfacing with other simulated assets. Constructive entities are computer-generated components in the environment that add realism and value but are not under the direct control of an individual in most cases. When combined in a simulation environment and enhanced by integrated terrain, imagery, 3D building and vehicle models, and other augmentations, the results can be impressive.
One example implementation for LVC capabilities includes the development and testing of Beyond-Visual-Line-Of-Sight (BVLOS) UAS flights in the NAS.
In these examples, live assets have included fixed-wing and Vertical-Takeoff-and-Landing (VTOL) UAS operating within sight of their operators, traditional aircraft flying as surrogate BVLOS UAS or non-participating manned traffic integrated with virtual UAS flown in simulated BVLOS operations and constructive non-participating traffic.
Once developed, this type of testing environment permitted the rapid and safe exploration of potential ConOps and safety risk mitigation processes within the existing regulatory structure. Waivers may be leveraged when issued but they are not required to accomplish what would otherwise be complex or potentially dangerous tasks. As processes and approaches are refined, the testing accomplished can support applications for waiver or even inform future regulatory development because it has been, at least virtually, operationalized.
Other good applications for LVC include first responder training, which is often difficult or cost prohibitive to conduct with distributed assets and limited training budgets. Exercises employing LVC for UAS related training have already included disaster response and damage assessments, active shooter, and missing persons scenarios integrating participants in multiple states and countries in realistic and immersive training that would otherwise not be logistically or financially possible.
The range of applications and use for LVC, especially related to UAS operationalization and safe deployments in potentially complex environments, is truly impressive. Those in government, academia, and industry should seek to better understand the benefits of LVC as a tool for ConOps development, application advancement, and operational tracking and support. Real cost savings, increased safety, and faster speed to market await those willing to embrace LVC systematically and with an openness to partnerships.