It’s a daunting schedule that already has experienced its first speed bump, and skeptics doubt there’s enough time to make it all happen safely, especially considering the slow pace of implementing the Next Generation Air Transportation System, the ongoing overhaul of air traffic control. NextGen includes much of the infrastructure technology drones will ultimately depend on for their “sense and avoid” technology — the equipment enabling them to share airspace safely with other aircraft. AUVSI President Michael Toscano serves on the NextGen Institute Management Council, a board of 17 aviation industry leaders advising on the implementation of the ongoing infrastructure revamp. He said, “NextGen will be required to safely integrate routine operation of UAS with manned platforms.”
Even with the eventual promise of NextGen’s efficiencies, the specter of 30,000 unmanned aircraft, ranging in size from hand-launched mini drones to airliners, being flown from armchairs and computer consoles has human pilots concerned, to say the least.
Heidi Williams, vice president of air traffic control services and modernization for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said the group generally supports the development of UAS but takes a “wait and see” attitude toward full integration. She said there is “a lot to be done” and that full integration “may be difficult.” She also said the definition of “full integration” is not crystal-clear and that the FAA will likely follow a phased approach that could be flexible along the way. Williams said: “AOPA is involved with all the rulemaking committees on UAS, and we’re working closely with the FAA’s UAS integration office. Our position is that, naturally, the top priority has to be safety. ‘Do no harm’ to the national airspace system is the first rule. Beyond that, the burden of proving the airworthiness of the systems is on the manufacturers.”
Steve Brown, chief operating officer at the National Business Aviation Association, spent seven years at the FAA as vice president of operations and planning and associate administrator for air traffic services. He said: “NBAA certainly supports the integration of UAS for the valuable roles they can serve in search and rescue, some agricultural operations, security and others. We feel the timeline is … ambitious. It’s more important to protect the timelines of the research, which doesn’t necessarily always line up with the [schedule defined in the] statement of policy.”
Brown, who sits on several of the FAA research committees on UAS integration, echoed Williams from AOPA in emphasizing the importance of safety in the integration process. He also said the integration needs to be incremental: “That way you not only develop the technology as you go, but you also build confidence among the stakeholders that the systems work and are reliable.”
Though full-scale implementation of the policy is still a few years away, partial approvals are coming even sooner for qualified first-responder agencies. For example, some agencies will be permitted to fly drones weighing 4.4 pounds or less, starting about the time you read this. Within the next 12 months, drones weighing less than 55 pounds will be permitted to fly in the Arctic region of the United States 24 hours a day at altitudes of 2,000 feet or less. And by mid-2014, 55-pound drones are scheduled to be allowed to fly within the entire U.S. airspace system with appropriate certificates of authorization.
There are three elements to a UAS certification process, and the details are currently being evaluated by several committees as part of the FAA research with input from the industry, AOPA, NBAA and other stakeholders: The aircraft and guidance systems themselves must meet airworthiness standards; the operator and/or observer must be appropriately trained and rated; and the specifics of each individual operation must be approved. Whether it’s a one-time authorization to fly a 4.4-pound surveillance rotorcraft 400 feet above a hostage situation or a long-term approval to monitor polar bears with regular flights within a specified block of Arctic airspace, each mission would be approved by the FAA and the appropriate notifications posted for pilots of manned aircraft.
Pilots are concerned about unmanned traffic up there, for sure, whether it’s about safety or further airspace restrictions. But politically, we’re small potatoes. In contrast, roughly 99.8 percent of the general public’s worry over unmanned aircraft is focused on privacy issues. Unlike the 0.2 percent of the population that are active pilots, most other Americans appear far more troubled by the prospect of high-definition video cameras spying on them from thin air than they are by the risk of a midair collision, even if the debris might land on their house.