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.