Enhancing the Expectations of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) – Recognizing Aviation-Grade Suppliers
The unmanned systems industry stands to disrupt almost every major industry. Indeed, it has already revolutionized warfare, and there is no hint of it slowing down. This growth has spurred unmatched innovation—from the new materials that enable small unmanned aircraft systems (SUAS) reliability and performance to the software and sensors that deliver unprecedented quantity and quality of information. This industry was not even technically possible until recently, which led early pioneers to improvise. When the SUAS market began, most critical components were not readily available, purpose-built systems were too expensive and slow to develop, and shortcuts were taken to get unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the air. Many of these shortcuts have remained the standard for the UAS industry. For instance, hobby engines and servos are still used today in high-end UAS. These hobby-grade components are functional and generally adequate for the technical task, but there is a subtle cost related to the unpredictable supply, manufacturing inconsistencies, and lower levels of maintainability and reliability of these systems.
The UAS technology revolution has changed consumer behavior on the battlefield and the commercial theatre and continues to do so. Expectations of UAS operations and performance have changed—more expensive payloads, longer flights, and vehicles logging more hours. The expectations on cost and reliability have also changed. All the while, the ability to distinguish aviation-grade from hobby-grade components and suppliers in the UAS market remains challenging.
As the UAS industry quickly expands and evolves, it has become more and more difficult to determine which vehicles, power plants, and components will deliver the reliability and consistency for high-consequence mission success and which will fall short. While there are not yet clear industry standards to distinguish aviation-grade UAS, there are certifications and operational qualities to distinguish which suppliers will best fit mission needs. Certifications like AS9100 compliance across engineering, production, and overhaul are a good start. These certifications indicate that a company is actively working to eliminate unreliability and inconsistencies to gain predictability and control of their products. This requires continuous improvement in key areas such as product development, supply chain, and maintenance. Most UAS systems have been designed to require little-to-no maintenance after they deploy to the field. This is largely because they are based on relatively inexpensive hobby components not designed or suitable for regular maintenance and overhauls. Significant indicators of UAS designed for maintenance include operations and maintenance manuals written for trained airframe and powerplant (A&P) or equivalent maintainers. While a design for maintainability seems intuitive, some history on the UAS industry quickly explains why most UAS were designed otherwise.
A High Tolerance for Failure
The root of the issue is that the UAS industry has grown up feeding a voracious appetite for services in an environment with a high tolerance for failure. These systems provided extreme value to military missions. Many different types of missions were made possible, and many more were enhanced by deploying unmanned systems. This value, combined with the relatively low cost of some of the initial deployed systems, allowed unmanned systems to continue operating, even with extremely high failure rates. With a large focus on price, the industry generally removed maintenance from the field by designing maintenance requirements out of the system. Maintenance management systems and associated certifications common in manned aviation never became necessary for unmanned systems. This made systems cheap enough that they were more economical to throw away and replace with a completely new system than to overhaul. With a heavy reliance on throw-away systems that required only simple operator-level maintenance actions, the industry never needed to develop an aviation grade maintenance and overhaul infrastructure. Consumers never had a chance to become sensitive to maintenance and overhaul infrastructure and logistics requirements.
Why Change From Hobby Grade to Aviation Grade?
Why not continue to use throw-away power plants and UAVs for critical missions? Why not change expectations of UAVs instead of changing the UAVs to meet expectations? As consumer expectations evolve, expectations for reliability and economics are rising. The industry is due to raise the bar, setting and supporting the expectation of aviation grade. The fundamentals of this improvement are control and certainty. Control the production line and maintenance to control the product and flight outcomes. Establish certainty when sending expensive payloads on critical missions. Beyond the monetary risk is the risk to the people counting on these systems to minimize mission threat. For extended, regular missions that require reliable, consistent flight operations, control and certainty are critical components for success.
Hobby-grade propulsion systems, for instance, are completely uncontrolled—from their supply chain to their configuration and quality. This leads to manufacturing inconsistencies that need to be dealt with after the fact and on a part-by-part basis. The immediate result is low yield, as nonconforming components are detected and scrapped from the manufacturing systems. The lagging result is that there is more inconsistency in the systems in the field for operations. Perhaps most concerning is that hobby-grade logistics systems are uncertain in their manufacturing continuity as well as their capacity/quantity of supply. This means maintaining considerable expensive inventory to mitigate risks such as the next batch of produced systems failing in some capacity or the manufacturer changing or making components obsolete to meet the hobby market’s needs. It also means many perfectly valuable engine systems such as generators, structural pieces, and control systems can become worthless at what would be their overhaul. Since there are no manufacturing management and monitoring systems in place, systemic failures and irregularities can be difficult to pinpoint and manage efficiently and effectively.
On the other hand, aviation-grade systems are purposefully designed and built to maintain their value through overhaul. Aviation-grade systems are quality controlled to the point that if/when there is a system failure, the issue can be identified and the batch of related products can be recalled, fixed, and released. More importantly, the engineering, manufacturing, or quality system root causes can be identified and corrected to prevent future failures. Designing systems for overhaul also means reducing required inventory for missions that require flying at a high tempo. A maintenance, repair, and overhaul operation can be placed conveniently close to the flight activity, reducing the on-hand requirements and minimizing downtime. The end result is system reliability and economics that enable the end user to focus on the task at hand, knowing the UAS will consistently support them as a crucial tool.
What to Expect From an Aviation-Grade Supplier
Knowing that a mission requires aviation-grade UAS is just half the battle. Distinguishing aviation-grade from hobby-grade suppliers is the real challenge. Although widespread and verified industry standards currently do not exist, there are a few qualities to look for in a supplier when looking for aviation-grade UAS. They are as follows:
- AS9100 compliance in manufacturing, engineering, and maintenance and repair.
- Clear organizational systems, including enterprise resource planning, configuration, and process control.
- A maintenance and repair department modeled after manned aviation and staffed by A&P mechanics.
- A maintenance and repair manual written for A&P mechanics.
- Built-in modularity for easier maintenance and inspection.
- Supply chain documentation and guarantees.
- Design documentation and development testing records that conform to aviation standards.
In addition to looking for these qualities, ask suppliers if they have any uncontrolled components designed into their system, such as engine cores, servos, generators, connectors, regulators, and control systems. Also determine if there are established maintenance and overhaul systems and on-call technical support.
As the unmanned industry continues to expand and evolve, consumers need tools to distinguish the hobby-grade UAS from aviation-grade UAS. There are some clear applications for hobby-grade UAS; however, critical missions generally are not part of those applications. Until regulation can catch up with the UAS industry, consumers must find what fits their application. By understanding the difference between hobby- and aviation-grade UAS, the best UAS for mission success can be better identified, thus pushing the industry to mature like manned aviation before us.