Are you concerned about the sky gradually becoming filled with windowless aircraft controlled by someone miles (maybe even states) away? You’re not alone. But it may be that the real “threat” turns out to be less about midair collisions and more about increasingly complicated and restricted airspace rules to accommodate remotely piloted aircraft operations.
They are variously known as the unmanned aerial system (UAS), the term favored by the manufacturers; unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs); and, most popularly, “drones.” Whatever the name, the science of unmanned aircraft has changed forever due to modern satellite navigation and optical technology, and still bigger changes are just over the horizon. Some of them are technological; others are sociopolitical in nature. Just how big the changes will be, and how far over the horizon they are lurking, is causing controversy within aviation circles, and even more attention from those concerned over privacy rights.
There are three primary attributes to unmanned systems compared with piloted aircraft (aside from not having to pay crew salaries and benefit packages). First, an unmanned aircraft is not limited by the sensitivity to G-forces of the human pilot. Admittedly, this is mostly a concern for combat aircraft. Second, unmanned aircraft can complete missions that would be too risky for human-powered aircraft (this could involve combat, but also police pursuit of suspects, search and rescue in bad weather, firefighting and inspection of hazardous-materials spills or nuclear meltdowns, for example). And finally, there are some missions that are just so simplistic and repetitive that even the most astute human would eventually become too bored to be able to remain effective (think long-term border patrol or a police stakeout, for example). Some drone platforms that are perfectly suited for these missions are capable of remaining aloft for days at a time. The physiological limitations of a human crew (sleep, food, etc.) would not permit full use of the aircraft’s capabilities. The extra 200 pounds (or more) of fuel or payload doesn’t hurt, either.
The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the largest drone industry trade group, predicts as many as 30,000 drones will be flying in U.S. airspace by 2020 (that would compare with approximately 231,000 currently registered “manned” aircraft, of which 223,000 are members of the general aviation fleet). This year’s FAA funding bill, the first long-term bill to pass muster since 2003, includes a mandate to “fully integrate” drones into U.S. airspace by the end of September 2015.
The association is quick to reassure pilots that a large percentage of the 30,000 aircraft will be small, low-flying drones — similar to radio-controlled models — that it says will not significantly affect manned operations. A midair collision with even a 4.4-pound “Group One” UAS (there are five official groups based on size, altitude capability and speed) would likely cause you to crash, and so the certification process of these lower-end types requires line-of-sight observation by FAA-licensed operators or a licensed observer, and it limits altitudes so as not to interfere with manned aircraft.
Drones that will operate in general airspace are another story, and some could be airliner-size. But they will not do so unannounced, according to AUVSI. They will operate under ATC surveillance (including transponders and two-way radio link) and have on-board sensing equipment to help avoid manned aircraft. That technology is still developing. Each operation will be preceded by a notam alerting pilots of manned aircraft when the drone will be flying and its planned route. That’s a little less scary from the collision point of view, but perhaps disconcerting when it comes to further limiting airspace access and complicating the flight planning process for us pilots.
The legislation’s integration timetable starts with the FAA, which is the controlling agency for all UAS operations in the national airspace system (NAS). The agency has been tasked with establishing six drone testing sites across the nation by the end of this year. It wasn’t a good sign that the agency missed its Aug. 12 deadline for initially proposing these sites. By February, a five-year “road map” from 800 Independence Ave. is due before Congress detailing exactly how the agency plans to integrate the unmanned aircraft. The final rule is due in August 2014, with the first permits for operating civil drones expected to be awarded starting in early 2015.