Make way for the drones

WASHINGTON, D.C. — You will be sharing the airspace with unmanned aerial vehicles more and more in the coming year and ahead.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) — more commonly called drones — have been operating in various parts of the nation since 1990. Since then, the FAA has authorized limited use for missions in the public interest, such as firefighting, disaster relief, search and rescue, law enforcement, border patrol, military training, and testing. They operate either under an experimental airworthiness certificate for the private sector, or through a Certificate of Waiver or Automation (COA) for public aircraft. As of November 2012, there were 345 COAs active. This had jumped from only 146 in 2009.

In the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress directed the FAA to establish a program to integrate UAS into the national airspace system at six test ranges. The FAA will designate these test sites in 2013. Controlled and uncontrolled airports may be used. Agency officials will ask for proposals to manage these sites, however it is evaluating options for addressing privacy concerns regarding expanded use of UAS.

Unlike recreational model drones which are restricted to below 400 feet, UAS may go from ground level to 50,000 feet. Routine operation over densely-populated area is prohibited.

Integrating UAS into today’s air system and preparing for NextGen — the Next Generation Air Transportation System — is a massive challenge for both the FAA and the aviation community. As an example, flying the drones requires a pilot on the ground. The agency is now studying the kind of training, level of experience, and type of certificate to require for these pilots. Because most UAS require coordination with an appropriate air traffic control facility, they may require a transponder. UAS technology cannot comply with “see and avoid” rules, so today’s operations require a visual observer or a chase plane to serve as “eyes” for the ground pilot.

The FAA chartered a UAS Rule Making Committee in 2011 to develop inputs and recommendations on appropriate operational procedures, regulatory standards and policies. Last year, the FAA established the Unmanned Aircraft Integration Office to provide a central place for civil and public use UAS in U.S. airspace. That office is developing a plan to integrate and establish operational and certification requirements for UAS.

General aviation organizations are closely following all of this to ensure that safety is maintained. Officials with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) say they expect UAS to integrate into the airspace but they are cautiously watching and working with the FAA to achieve a safe integration.

Meanwhile, FAA officials say there are several factors a pilot should consider regarding UAS activity in an effort to reduce potential flight hazards. Pilots are urged to exercise increased vigilance when operating in the vicinity of restricted or other special use airspace, military operations areas, and any military installation. Areas with a preponderance of UAS activity are typically noted on sectional charts. Pilots also should realize that UAS range in sizes from something weighing only a few pounds up to the size of a Boeing 737. If a drone is encountered in flight, the FAA recommends pilots do not assume that they can be seen by the pilot of the UAS and should be prepared to take evasive action if necessary. Check NOTAMS for specific areas.


  1. Ed Watson says

    This is a thorny problem to be sure. The only practical way I can see is by using NexGen equipment for ALL aircraft. ALL UAV’s must operate on IFR rules and flight plans and thus fly at those altitudes leaving the VFR altitudes un-polluted. I have numerous flight hours on that “737” size “drone” but it flies at altitudes where only VERY few planes fly (U-2″s and SR-71’s). It “levels off at ~FL-550 and continuously climbs as fuel burns off with later models able to level off at FL-600. (Bye the bye only transited the CONUS on deployment to other US bases and for a CA fire or two and climbs and descends in restricted aispace.) Thus it is out of the picture even for BizJets at Fl-510.
    The smaller and more numerous “drones” typically fly at FL-200 or thereabouts and so far only fly in defined altitude blocks that are NOTAM’d for their flights. So far, they are not allowed to just operate on an IFR flight plan like you or I might file, It takes about 24 hours for the FAA to issue a COA for each operation. But the day is on the horizon when far more routine ops are “normal” and that is of my concern.
    Other “drone” operations have included the cruise missiles. They fly nap-of-the-earth profiles on defined and published “Inland routes” and NOTAM’d when hot. In all cases they are followed by gaggles of fighters flying close and loose chase, tankers to refuel the fighters and helicopters at selected spots of the mission.
    Bottom line. They ARE coming so get prepared.

  2. eltee says

    How does the basic tenet of VFR…to see and avoid…work when only one of two parties in shared airspace can see? When a drone runs over a GA aircraft…(Oops!)…and they both come down in a ball of flames and smoke, is someone standing by the console with a ruler ready to rap the operator’s knuckles?

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