WASHINGTON, D.C. — Unmanned aerial systems (UAS), better known as drones, are moving fast in development. General aviation pilots are starting to delve deeper into the subject as FAA expects as many as 30,000 UAS to be flying in U.S. airspace by 2020.
Here’s why pilots are looking at what they are sharing the airspace with: Some drones can fly as high as 65,000 feet. Some may be programmed to fly to specific locations without pilot control. FAA has designated six test sites to conduct research to integrate UAS with piloted aircraft, with four of the sites already operational. Some test areas may fly up to 3,000 feet.
Whether they realize it or not, pilots have been flying with drones for many years. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has quietly used drones for domestic surveillance purposes at least 10 times without obtaining warrants.
The first commercial use approved by the FAA sees energy corporation BP flying aerial surveys in Alaska. BP expects the sensors on the approved vehicle — a Puma AR from AeroVironment — to inspect the pipelines, roads, and equipment at Prudhoe Bay, the largest oil field in the U.S. The Puma is about 4-½ feet long and has a wingspan of 9 feet. This is a small drone.
The military has a wide variety of drones. They foretell the size and capabilities that could be coming in the future.
The U.S. Air Force has three tiers of drones. Tier one is low altitude, long endurance, a role filled by the Gnat 750. Tier two is medium altitude, long endurance, and includes the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper. Tier two plus is high altitude (60,000-65,000 feet), long endurance, less than 300 knots, with a 3,000 nautical mile radius. Tier three is high altitude, with an even long endurance. The U.S. Marine Corps and Army also have a three-tier level of drones for fighting.
Only slight changes to any of these designs can make them civilian ready.
Demand is growing for permission to use UAS of various sizes. Police, fire departments, and traffic agencies are just three government offices eager to begin using drones. On the commercial side, real estate agencies see drones as a way to take aerial photos of property for sale. Drones are also gaining additional attention for agriculture uses.
General aviation leaders have seen the day coming when pilots will have not only other aircraft to be alert for, but aerial vehicles with either eyes only on the ground by a remote operator or one programmed to fly from one point to another with no human eyes following.
As far back as 2004, officials with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) started talking with the FAA about the subject. A working group was formed in 2007 and
a proposal was submitted to the FAA in 2009. The association is now intensifying its efforts with the FAA. Currently, AOPA internally is weighing the possibility of proposing the FAA act to have all drone remote controllers pilot qualified.
Perhaps an exploding growth in drones will interest more people to get involved in general aviation.