Graham Warwick | Aviation Week & Space Technology
The vast majority of commercial unmanned aircraft flying today are small, well below the 55-lb. limit now set by regulators, but certain missions are driving interest in larger aircraft—among them firefighting, cargo delivery, crop spraying and maritime surveillance.
Testing of large commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) is picking up pace, with test sites in North America playing a key role because of the availability of airspace in which to fly aircraft capable of ranging long distances from their operators.
Spain’s Singular Aircraft has contracted with Unmanned Aircraft International (UAI) to operate its 8,800-lb.-gross-weight SA-203 Flyox commercial UAS at three locations in North America: Pendleton, Oregon; Alma, Quebec; and Foremost, Alberta.
The amphibious Flyox was originally designed as an automated waterbomber, capable of delivering 2,000 liters (530 gal.) in a single drop. In the surveillance role, this gives the aircraft a 50 -hr. endurance carrying a 500-lb. sensor payload.
The first Flyox is scheduled to arrive at Pendleton, part of the FAA-approved Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex, at the end of September, says Chuck Jarnot, operations manager with Casper, Wyoming-headquartered UAI. This will be the primary technical demonstrator aircraft, he says, and the focus of work at Pendleton will be on airframe and software upgrades, testing of mission configurations for firefighting, cargo parachute-dropping and maritime surveillance, and initiation of FAA certification.
A second aircraft is planned to be delivered to the UAS Center of Excellence in Alma in mid-December for use as a development testbed for the remote-area cargo delivery mission to support eventual commercial operations in northeast Canada, says Jarnot.
A third Flyox is earmarked for delivery to the Canadian Center for Unmanned Vehicle Systems in Foremost in the spring of 2018 to develop software and spray kits for crop dusting and to support eventual commercial operations in northwest Canada, he says “Finally, discussions are underway to position a fourth Flyox near Mexico City in late summer 2018 to serve the Latin America market,” says Jarnot. “All [aircraft] postings will share flight data and act as launch sites for their respective regional markets.”
Barcelona, Spain-based Singular began low-rate initial production of the Flyox late in 2016 and has sold two aircraft with four more under construction, Jarnot says. The initial Mark I version is powered by two 210-hp Mazda turbocharged gasoline engines that provide a maximum 63-hr. endurance. The Mark II has two 340-hp General Motors V8 gasoline engines.
The Mark II can carry 2,000 kg (4,400 lb.) of water for short distances in the firefighting role or 1,000 kg with 1,000-nm range for cargo delivery, says Jarnot. The Flyox can operate out of 3,000-ft. runways, but within 9-18 months a seaplane patrol variant is expected to be available. This will have diesel engines and satellite communications, he says.
As it is well beyond the 55-lb. weight limit on commercial UAS, the Flyox will require FAA certification, but Jarnot says operating costs are a quarter of those of comparable manned aircraft because of the simple airframe and fuel-efficient engines.
And the Singular/UAI team is not the only one eyeing the market for larger UAS. Transport Canada has awarded a two-year contract to Iqaluit, Nunavut-based Arctic UAV to demonstrate a concept for operating UAS in northern Canada. Arctic UAV has partnered with the University of Alaska – Fairbanks, through its Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, and will operate Griffon Aerospace’s SeaHunter UAS.
The Transport Canada contract will help develop procedures, training and risk-assessment tools for UAS operations in northern Canada, says Arctic UAV, using the 250-300-lb.-gross-weight SeaHunter to advance beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations in the Arctic.
The first test mission under the contract has been conducted at the Alma test range in northern Quebec. Startup Arctic UAV, which is supported by the government of Nunavut—the northernmost territory of Canada encompassing most of the country’s Arctic terrain—says it is working to set up an Arctic UAS testing center based in Iqaluit.
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