Whenever I tell a group of pilots that I also fly helicopters, there’s always one guy in the group who says he can’t stand them.
“I hate those things,” he’ll spew. “They’re unpredictable when they’re flying in the pattern. You never know which way they’re going to fly.”
Helicopter pilots learn early in their training they have to cede the right-of-way to all other aircraft, yet other pilots don’t seem to know this. When I try to explain that fact is in the Aeronautical Information Manual, I still get, “I don’t care. I still hate ’em.”
Now I’m that guy — when it comes to drones. I don’t trust them. Reading one report filed to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System by an air traffic controller only underscored my dread.
“While working an adjacent sector, I witnessed an unmanned aircraft deviate from its assigned altitude. This Unmanned Aerial Vehicle was cleared to maintain FL350. Yet it descended out of FL350 to FL300 without a clearance. When questioned by the controller, the remote pilot stated that he could not maintain FL350, so he descended.”
If you’re an IFR pilot reading this right now, you’re wondering how the heck the pilot of that remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) got away with that!
Rules under CFR 91.179 concerning IFR cruising altitude or flight level specifically state: “Unless otherwise authorized by ATC, the following rules apply in controlled airspace: Each person operating an aircraft under IFR in level cruising flight in controlled airspace shall maintain the altitude or flight level assigned that aircraft by ATC.”
Additionally, CFR 91.187 states: “The pilot in command of each aircraft operated in controlled airspace under IFR shall report as soon as practical to ATC any malfunctions of navigational, approach or communication equipment occurring in flight … along with the nature and extent of assistance desired from ATC.”
The remote pilot did not provide the reason for the RPA’s inability to maintain FL350. Further, the pilot did not appear to have filed a NASA report regarding the event. The controller opined that the event occurred due to the pilot’s lack of training.
We don’t know if the remote pilot was cited in this instance for the altitude deviation. The assumption is that remote pilots suffer the same consequences as other pilots for FAR violations. As yet, there seems to be no evidence of FAA enforcement actions against transgressing remote pilots. That’s a problem. We need to know that remote pilots, like regular pilots, are accountable.
The FAA is under pressure from all sides to fully integrate RPAs into the National Airspace System this year. The administration is hard-pressed to meet the deadline, partly because it has to weigh the desirable against the possible.
On the one hand, it is desirable to mandate and enforce a rule that all remote pilots train to commercial, instrument-rated pilot flight standards. It’s also desirable for RPA operators to train their remote pilots to that standard.
On the other hand, is it possible for the FAA to enforce such a rule? It may be if RPA operators fly their drones under the authority of an FAA Certificate of Authorization. But what if they are not beholden to a COA? What if they are military operators? Then you might get an altitude deviation incident like the one described above.
There are more reasons drones make me nervous. One RPA operator filed a NASA report after his remote pilot lost data link communications with his RPA. His aircraft was in cruise at FL230 when a major component of the RPA’s processor unit reset itself in flight. The remote pilot had failed to update the Lost Link Profile to reflect the latest ATC clearance before the inadvertent reset, so the RPA’s main computer profile defaulted to a previous flight plan. That caused the aircraft to abandon its flight path and head toward the closest location as defined in the previous Lost Link Profile. It also descended 4,000 feet as part of the diversion.
In other words, the RPA, having lost communications with its remote pilot, failed to proceed by any of three rules outlined by the Code of Federal Regulations. Instead it initiated a program designed by a software programmer. Yikes.
Manned aircraft pilots want to feel confident that the FAA has an effective solution in writing when RPAs lose communication. CFR 91.185 states that if a pilot loses two-way radio communication with ATC, the pilot shall continue the flight one of three ways:
- Route: By the route assigned in the last ATC clearance received.
- Altitude: At the highest altitude for that flight segment, as assigned by ATC in the last clearance received or the altitude ATC has advised may be expected in a further clearance.
- Leave clearance limit: If from an Initial Approach Fix (IAF), commence descent or approach and descend as close to the “expect further clearance” time noted in the flight plan or the time as advised by ATC in the last clearance received. If not from an IAF, leave the clearance limit at the time noted on the flight plan or the time as advised by ATC in the last clearance received.
These rules do not address the fact that RPAs have two communication links, only one of which is direct voice communication to ATC. The second communication link is the remote pilot’s data link to the drone. So what are the FAA-authorized procedures for a loss of data link communication? Not yet defined.
The remote pilot in the NASA report did notify ATC immediately of the problem and of the deviation. Two minutes later, the data link was reestablished. The RPA climbed back to its assigned flight level, and the flight proceeded without further incident. The RPA operator acknowledged the software snafu and pledged to fix it by adding an extra layer of protection against inadvertent resets.
Fortunately, the unauthorized descent and flight path deviation did not result in a near miss or a collision. But the drone’s actions jeopardized ATC’s ability to maintain positive aircraft separation in that section of the sky.
This is the single most dangerous aspect of RPAs operating in the National Airspace System. I think it’s more dangerous than drone encounters in VFR conditions, on approach and low to the ground. This notion that it is okay for RPA operators to program their RPAs to fly a Lost Link Profile or to continue their flight plan instead of being programmed to continue flight in accordance with FAR 91.185 rules is not just unsafe. It’s illegal.
But wait! There’s more. What happens when an RPA operating legally in stealth mode drifts out of a Military Operations Area?
According to one pilot who filed a NASA report: “My passengers and I noticed an oblong-shaped UAV (approximately two-to-three feet long with a long antenna) passing us in the opposite direction within 100 feet of our left wing on the 45° entry to Runway 15…. The object did not show up on my TCAS as a threat.”
The airport environment where the reporting pilot was operating was adjacent to an MOA. According to the reporter, ATC was unaware of RPA activity during the time of this incident. Nor could they “see” it on their radar.
This pilot maintains that RPAs should not be able to operate in stealth mode or at least should have to remain within their prescribed airspace.
How do we even report an errant RPA to ATC? If it were a manned aircraft, the pilot could have noted its N number and reported it that way. But what if the RPA has no N number? Are RPAs even required to have one? Are they required to be registered with the FAA if they aren’t operating under a Certificate of Authorization? Certainly, off-the-shelf quadcopters don’t have N numbers.
Few, if any, FAA personnel imagined the rise of unmanned, powered flight, especially not at the rapid pace at which the technology has been adopted. So if you cannot imagine such technology could exist, then how can you envision how to regulate it? RPAs create more questions than the FAA can answer right now.
For instance, all aircraft have to meet certain standards to be deemed “airworthy.” Should the airworthiness standards for an RPA include proof of its ability to safely land itself? A lost data link situation is similar to the recent events where an American Airlines first officer had to land a two-crewmember plane by himself. The captain had become incapacitated, but a procedure existed, and was implemented, to get the airliner safely on the ground with only one pilot at the controls.
An RPA also has a two-crewmember requirement — the RPA’s flight computer and the remote pilot. If either one loses contact with the other, shouldn’t a federally regulated procedure exist to program the drone to land safely?
The FAA is trying to tackle the tough questions surrounding full integration of RPAs into the NAS. Let’s hope the administration is able to ignore pressure from public and private interests until the long-term consequences can be envisioned and addressed completely.