WASHINGTON, D.C. — Interest is increasing to use more unmanned aerial vehicles for security, law enforcement, weather studies, and other dangerous or dull jobs and this is posing big challenges for the FAA and pilots.
These vehicles — called Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) by the FAA — have proved themselves valuable where they have been used. In Fiscal Year 2009, there were about 20,000 UAS flights in civilian airspace, racking up more than 2,500 hours. The number of UAS operations granted by the FAA has more than tripled since 2007.
There are two types of UAS, which range in size from about that of a backpack to as large as a small airliner. One type is drones, which are programmed to fly a particular mission. The other are aircraft remotely controlled by a person on the ground, often thousands of miles away.
A major problem for all concerned is that, while recognizing the value of UAS, the primary concern remains safety — and making the two compatible is no easy task. The FAA has been actively working on this since 2006. The agency hopes to be far enough along this fall to present to Congress a roadmap for integrating UAS into the national airspace system. It also expects to publish a proposed rule for small UAS next year.
The FAA is not trying to resolve all these questions alone. An executive committee of government agencies has been formed, which includes the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and NASA. Additionally, various civilian groups that will be affected when the UAS begin sharing airspace have been on committees working with Air Traffic Control on the planning.
A major concern of the National Association of State Aeronautic Officials (NASAO) is how much restricted airspace in each state will be set aside for UAS and what will this do to other flights.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) echoes that concern, and has several others. AOPA spokesman Chris Dancy said the association has long known that unmanned vehicles will be operating in the national airspace, but insists that rules for UAS must be the same as those for VFR operations. “Until that is assured,” he said, “no UAS.”
The key concern of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) is making certain there is reliable assurance of separation when manned and unmanned vehicles mix in the airspace. Although at first separate airspace will be required to be set aside for UAS operation, NBAA officials see future development that will safely mix both kinds of unmanned vehicles with those that have pilots. This would require not only a basic system to separate vehicles, but also a failsafe back-up system. Association officials says they continue to work with the FAA in finding acceptable solutions for all parties.
And FAA officials make it clear that safety is the primary criteria. FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt has said in order “to get to the place where the UAS can become a viable, accepted part of the national airspace system, we have to make sure that sense-and-avoid (the see-and-avoid for UAS) is more than a given — it must be a guarantee.”
This worries some members of Congress. Four years ago, a UAS the size of a small jet crashed near Nogales, Ariz., just missing homes on a hillside. The National Transportation Safety Board report said it was human error. Concerned about safety and the FAA’s long period for developing regulations, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) has placed a hold on the confirmation of Michael Huerta as FAA deputy administrator.
Despite this concern and charges the FAA has been dragging its feet, Texas officials — including Cornyn — are among those urging the FAA to permit UAS to patrol the Texas-Mexico border.
The FAA, other federal, state, and local government offices, airlines, general aviation groups, and particularly pilots and their passengers demand that getting it right the first time is essential. The uproar when two piloted aircraft collide is nothing compared to public, local, state, and federal government outrage if an unmanned vehicle brings down an aircraft with a pilot, and perhaps others, on board.
Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.