The UAS 101 consumer guide is aimed at leveling the field aerial unmanned systems to all market participants – novice, veteran consumers and manufacturers alike, creating a balanced, candid common ground.
Just a decade ago, the word “drone,” also commonly known as an unmanned aerial system or UAS, was synonymous to a mysterious device used by military forces, carrying out covert aerial intelligence and surveillance missions that were formerly performed only by manned aircrafts; serving as an expandable platform for undesirable missions denoted as “The dull, the dirty and the dangerous” (1). The only other users of “drones” were hobbyists, flying radio-controlled (RC) aircraft for their personal curiosity and amusement.
Several global vectors converged in recent years to form a new segment known as the civil or commercial UAS market. The first vector – awareness, originated in the 1970s and was shaped by a steady rise in publications that culminated in recent years with growing use in international military operations. The second vector, refers to the increasing availability of information through the World Wide Web, affording people everywhere the ability to access information, read, learn, share and experiment in technology that was deemed for professionals only until then and the third vector refers to the increase in hardware and software availability with easier, cost effective access to high-quality, low-cost materials and components.
The instinctive potential of the commercial/civil UAS market has introduced many new researchers and manufacturers to the field, ranging from novice entrepreneurs, RC aircraft providers, University teams and veteran defense contractors. Their arrival along with global vectors pushed forward new ideas and concepts which are not always mission oriented but are tested and introduced to the UAS arena, and may serve it in the future – from platform shapes, flight modes, composition, AI, electronics to software, payloads, sensors, and more.
Parallel to the rise in manufacturers and platforms, there has been a rise in potential consumers, as more and more individuals, institutions and companies seek to assess the potential of using UAS for their own operations, including surveying land and sea, mapping areas of interest, communication, relay, monitoring activity, security, the delivery of goods, sports, conservation and more.
Both manufacturers and potential consumers have an interest in this market, while having a deep gap between them in concept and practice. On one hand Manufacturers differ greatly in and between themselves and are focused at developing and selling their products, while potential consumers should focus on the actual need but typically have a very abstract approach towards UAS, placing all systems under similar criteria and requirements.
The conceptual gap begins with the elementary misunderstanding and misalignment of the concepts and terms used in the UAS market, limiting possible consumers from designing a proper search and budget for the most appropriate UAS for their needs and goals.
The UAS 101 begins from an overall view by clarifying the commonly used term – “a system”, drilling down to basic capabilities, concepts and components, referring and clarifying commonly used terms in the industry. This is a basic guide only, intended at providing a fresh basis for discussion from which one can begin the long learning process required to fully understand the market, systems and the rapid developments taking place in the UAS industry.
Section 1 - Overview
Terminology: Drone, RC, RPA, UAV, UAS.
The unmanned aircraft concept began just after the first manned flight almost 100 years ago. Its evolution brought the use of many diverse terms, varying with time and geographical location. As the industry’s popularity increases, designations change meaning, change use and ultimately create confusion. In order to progress it is essential to adhere to the most accurate, appropriate and agreed upon terminology.
Drone: The most common and most incorrectly used term. Originating from the male honeybee, it was used to refer to the first-generation of unmanned aircrafts that were used mainly as “simple” flying targets for practice and experimental purposes. As systems evolved to modern-day autonomous levels, the continuous use of the term does a disservice to their character, capabilities and activity.
RCA/RC – “Radio Controlled Aircraft”: Refers to the aircraft itself and not as a system, at the basic hobbyist level. RCA’s are operator controlled via handheld consoles in direct line of sight and not via an on-board operator, software or autonomous hardware. The term “control” is typically limits activity to flight parameters only, with no autonomous commands, automatic backup or safety systems, normally including only uplink commands. RPA’s are considered as a lower evolutionary tier under the RPA/UAV.
RPA – “Remotely Piloted Aircraft”: An RPA is the formal term referring to the platform itself, indicating, in contrast to the RCA that it is a remotely piloted semi or fully autonomous aircraft, via an onboard software and hardware. Generally RPA’s are reusable aircrafts designed to perform a mission with various payloads and not just for “flight” experience. The definition of the term “piloted” vs. control is essential, referring to command via a semi/full autonomous onboard software and hardware while normally including a conscious ground operator, reviewing flight, sensors, payload and mission data, with uplink commands and ordinarily downlink (or onboard) data.Capabilities and quality vary greatly.
UAS – “Unmanned Aircraft System”is the formal term more commonly used today, . An unmanned aircraft system consists of several sub-systems enabling it to perform a mission.Beginning from the reusable aerial Semi/fully autonomous vehicle/platform itself (UAV/RPA), a ground control station, payloads, communication, and more, differing in design between categories and systems.
Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS):
By definition, a system is a set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole (2). In the case of the UAS, each component of the system is a sub-system onto itself, comprising of multiple components that differ in and between categories and models, to enable the necessary operational characteristics.
Each UAS is the sum of its selected components. In addition to the crew, the basic sub-systems commonly present are:
Semi/Full autonomous platform – The aircraft itself (UAV/RPA)
Ground Control Station (GCS) – comprising of the basic tools necessary for monitoring, communicating and controlling the platform (see below).
Payload – A general term describing the mission performing sub-system as UASperform specific tasks for which they carry designated, lethal or nonlethal payloads (see below)
Ground Support Equipment (GSE/SE) – comprising of all other equipment necessary to operate the system, such as launch or landing equipment, spare parts and more (see below).
Training and literature are usually designated under the GSE.
While these basic components are required to operate any system, their proper design and designation as a “system” is provided by the manufacturer, who designs and designates the necessary number of sub-systems that create a mission-oriented operational system.
The final components combination will dictate the system’s short and long term operability, reliability and effectiveness.
(For example, in many systems a minimal system consists of two or three aircraft, two or more payloads, one GCS and one set of GSE).
Mission (Purpose of use):
Recent “Drone” trends have seen various groups rushing to buy an unmanned aerial system, publically announcing the purchase of an advanced system aimed at solving all their problems, disregarding the fact that the operational goals should be the ones dictating the use of the UAS and not vice versa.
Popular definition sees UAS as aircrafts meant to perform missions described as “the dull, dirty and dangerous” (1). More explicitly unmanned systems were designed to be used in missions previously performed by manned aircrafts, with the vision of reducing risk to human lives. The use of commercial or civilian UAS is extending beyond merely replacing existing systems, into defining new uses that were not available previously due to high costs and risks associated with manned flights and older unmanned systems.
In order to effectively use an unmanned aircraft systems, a new potential consumer, commercial or military, should first understand and outline the nature and needs of his intended mission and its adaptability to available and developing technologies, among which are also unmanned aircraft systems. To facilitate the process, we can generally divide a mission’s framework into three broad, overlapping elements that enable a potential user to better understand his purpose in practical terms:
Element 1 – The mission’s general objective:
The general objective outlines the mission characteristics in its broadest terms. Generally divided (but not limited to):
Routine data collection: Refering to regular, repetitive data collection by optical, visual, or other means, such as in routine surveys, mapping, or agriculture missions, where periodical or daily data collection is needed and can be analyzed . The data from these missions is usually collected for non-urgent purposes, creating a large database that enables analysis of overall trends, planning, counting, etc.
Response/Event management:Refers to missions where the platform is used to provide a local team with an immediate bird's-eye view in response to an event (a public event, disaster, etc.). These missions are usually, but not limited to be performed at close range.
Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR): Refers to missions where the platform performs live data collection via sensors (usually gimbaled optics) aimed at finding, collecting and tracking specific points of interest in a managed manner, and not only as a response to an event. This type of mission can be performed at close to long range.
Element 2 – Overall mission tempo:
The tempo outlines the operational rhythm and time required to achieve the mission. Information, data or action generated by the unmanned platform can be delivered post-flight by downloading data after landing or via a real-time downlink from the aircraft.
A common error occurs when prospective users select a system whose tempo is ill fitted to the mission, causing unnecessary complications, expenditures and waste.
The basic tempo division is between non-real and real-time systems:
Non-real time (NRT) or post-flight data collection:
Under NRT, the platform executes a designated, usually preplanned, flight plan, while gathering and saving the necessary data on an onboard computer.
Most systems in this category include an optical stills payload, (i.e. a camera), for survey and mapping purposes that require high resolution. These missions can provide area coverage, delivering information for engineering, agriculture, planning, foreign species invasion and much more.
Additional payloads can be used with different sensors, such as optical, SIGINT, etc.,
Communication range is usually limited only by the uplink as automated processes do not require downlink, thus the area coverage depends on platform capabilities on a single or a series of flights.
Does not require a constant line of sight.
Real time (RT) data collection:
In this category the platform executes a modular flight plan that can be either preplanned or change during flight, while transmitting the necessary data in real time to a ground station.
Most systems in this category use an optical gimbaled payload (i.e., a camera) for live ISR purposes, while some enable to switch and install stills or other payloads. These missions provide real-time coverage of the area, enabling the detection and pursuit of live events, such as illegal activity, security, public events, fire, etc.
Additional payloads can be used with different sensors – optical, COMMINT, SIGINT and more.
Communication range is usually limited by the aircraft's downlink from the ground station as it requires sending large quantities of data, which is usually more limited in scope than the uplink.
Requires continuous line of sight (LOS) between communication systems to aircraft (in LOS systems).
Element 3 -- Mission work area characteristics: