Today’s unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that can fly above a target for about 40 hours may be usurped by a next generation of UAVs. New prototypes can hover above targets for up to five years, said Edward Herlick, an aviation technology analyst who’s viewed beta-test flights. While the UAVs have a greater potential to provide seamless communications in commercial sectors, they also can be used for public safety, such as for border surveillance or for monitoring the effects of natural disasters.

“There’s a new class of UAVs in development that will let users persist over a spot after a civilian disaster,” Herlick said. “So instead of 40 hours, you get days, months, even years of use.”

The next generation of UAVs is so new that even industry has yet to agree on a name and classification, but prototype designs have been known as solar-powered, persistent UAVs. Herlick said that during test flights, the prototype has sat for a month above the jet stream at an altitude of more than 20,000 feet. In the future, a year is “an easy goal,” he added.

Herlick said that there are several commercial and public-safety applications for persistent UAVs. Currently, prototypes can provide the services of satellites better because they are not limited by orbital mechanics and rocket-launch costs. For public safety, if first-responder agencies could predict a disaster, such as a hurricane, the UAV could be deployed before it hits in order to collect and transmit high-resolution photos to personnel inside a mobile command center. Persistent UAVs also can act as communications beacons able to bounce signals so mobile and portable radio systems can communicate on the ground, Herlick said.

“Radio relay is the government’s priority … for signals to bounce between the UAV to the ground,” he said. “So if your communications systems are taken down, you can bounce them off the UAV.”

Herlick said that persistent UAVs may cost one-tenth of a satellite for a similar capability. As a result, he sees a strong commercial use for cellular and data networks; for example, persistent UAVs could be placed in an urban area to reduce the number of tower sites that have to be operated and maintained by a carrier, without sacrificing coverage. However, Herlick doesn’t see a strong market potential for border-control usage because of FAA airspace restrictions. UAVs aren’t allowed to fly in commercial airspace and, instead, are stuck flying in military airspace — but only when they don’t interfere with military drills or missions. Such a strict limitation greatly limits their usability, he said.

To solve the issue, the FAA needs to work with the agencies using UAVs to designate airspace to the devices, Herlick said. However, right now manufactures and users are running into red tape.

“It’s pure bureaucracy, when it should be about integrating UAVs into commercial airspace,” he added.

For more on UAVs, see the July print edition of Urgent Communications.