Sharing our airspace with drones

WASHINGTON, D.C. ­— Have you seen any drones flying around you recently? More are in the sky than you might realize.

Information about where they are and where they might be was recently released by the FAA responding to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The Mail newspaper, in London, England, published the data.

Drones — officially known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) —­ are operating from 63 locations in 20 states. Most are being operated by the military, law enforcement agencies, and the U.S. Border Patrol. Also, 19 universities and colleges are on the operating list doing research. Some are flying in or near heavily populated areas, such as a Marine Corps base south of Washington, D.C., near the University of Connecticut, in southern Florida courtesy of the Miami-Dade County Police Department, and at NASA-Ames Research Center south of Oakland, California.

The FAA also released two lists of public and private entities that have applied for approval to fly drones in the United States. Certificates of Authorization (COA) are active in 42 locations and have expired in 16. Four applications were not approved. Private drone manufacturers have Special Airworthy Certificates (SAC) active in 21 locations. They also have 17 locations that are not active.

Data indicates there are about 300 active COAs. The agency also has issued between 700 to 750 authorizations since 2006 when the program began. Issuances for 35 SACs were listed by the FAA.

While the activity of the drones in overseas military danger spots is covered by the general news media, little has been discussed about their deployment in the United States.

General aviation organizations have been following the drone issue diligently. The use of drones seems inevitable, but GA groups want to ensure that their use does not restrict general aviation nor pose a threat to safety.

As part of last year’s AirVenture, the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) included a drone flying into its annual meeting at Oshkosh. The short flight in from the north was well monitored by association staff and volunteers.

Commenting on the release of the information about the number and locations of drones, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) officials said they were pleased that the FAA “finally released the list of site locations.”

AOPA officials added the association wants to make certain drones meet the same standards as manned aircraft and that operators meet stringent standards to maintain safety of operation.

Staffers at the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) also have been interacting with the FAA as UAVs have been brought into use more frequently.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation notes in its release of information from the FAA that there are still many questions to be answered. Among these are why certain applicants are denied authorization, what models and sizes of UAVs are in use throughout the United States, and the number of drones that might be in the air at any given time.

The FAA is reticent about releasing information, promising only that more information will be released at a later date. General Aviation News sought answers to several questions, including whether or not the remote pilots of UAVs have training and proficiency in aviation regulations and at what altitudes the drones operate. As this is written, no responses have been received.

Washington aviation groups monitoring the issue say what must be thoroughly studied and documented is the ability of a remote pilot of a drone to see and avoid other aircraft. It is also important that the airspace where drones operate is not restricted for GA pilots or require unreasonable equipment aboard general aviation aircraft.

Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.


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