Drones A Coming Crisis for GA
We should all be cheering that Congress passed a comprehensive FAA funding bill yesterday, a bill that President Obama is expected to sign into law soon.
But the soon-to-be law has a section in it that should be cause for great concern to all in GA. In this seemingly innocuous subtitle, Congress saw fit to mandate a timetable for the adoption of drone aircraft — which it now calls unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS. The timetable is shockingly quick: the law calls for full integration of UAS into the national airspace system (NAS) by 2015, just over three years from now.
This wouldn't be great cause for alarm if it weren't for the hazards posed by UAS to us GA pilots. These craft represent, in fact, the first new airborne hazard to aviation in decades. Lasers and tethered surveillance balloons have been around for some time now, and their threat pales in comparison to the threat that drones will bring.
There are several problems with the new law, but the greatest is that it mandates integration into the NAS before it has been shown that UAS can be safely allowed to fly in places where you and I fly our light GA airplanes, jets, and helicopters.
The big question is this: How can we ensure that drones won't be a greater mid-air collision risk than other airplanes are now?
If there's any research that has been done on this, I am unaware of it. I am, in fact, at a loss as to how this could possibly be made to work.
Here's why. Our current approach for preventing mid-air collisions is a multi-faceted one based largely on a see-and-avoid strategy. Using its radar, which might be primary or Mode-C, ATC sees there's a potential conflict and let's you know, for example, that there's traffic at 11 o'clock and three miles. You look for that traffic, and if you see it, you do whatever's necessary to avoid hitting it. Almost always, that means you need to do nothing. See-and-avoid, however imperfect, is effective. The second tier is mandated separation. I won't go into the little details here, as there are numerous separation minimums that ATC follows to regulate the safe flow of traffic in different areas and phases of flight. An example is the 1,000-foot separation vertically for IFR enroute traffic. Even if both you and the other guy are off your assigned altitude by a couple of hundred feet, you'll be just fine anyways. For crossing traffic, ATC will still rely on see-and-avoid if you're in the clear, or it will give you vectors to maintain separation if you're in the soup. It all works extremely well, but all of it relies at least in part with the ability of the human pilots to see something, recognize what it is, take the proper actions and, often, communicate that to ATC or the other pilot. None of this works with unmanned aircraft.
The final part of the collision avoidance strategy — the only part that applies to drones — is aircraft-mounted collision avoidance equipment, though the only kind that is relevant here is TCAS II, an expensive system that is installed in a small percentage of civil and military aircraft. TCAS II provides what are known as “resolution advisories,” or RAs, which command pilots to climb or descend when faced with an imminent collision threat with other TCAS II equipped aircraft. (The aircraft not told to climb is, sensibly, told to descend).The system works great.
And it is exactly what we need to ensure that we won't be smacking into drones flying in our airspace, but it won't happen. Neither my airplane nor yours, most likely, is equipped with TCAS II. The drones won't be either. Many of them will be outfitted with inexpensive systems because, remember, one of the greatest benefits of drones is that they're cheap to operate precisly because there's no pilot on board.
Will ADS-B be a possible solution? It might be part of one. But that satellite-based system isn't mandated for installation on GA airplanes until 2020, five years after Congress wants our skies filled with drones. How will we keep from running into UAS when we're flying perfectly legally in our airspace? The FAA isn't saying and Congress didn't even bring it up.
The only possible answer is that the drones will have to avoid us.
And that terrifies me. I doubt that these unmanned aircraft, bought and operated because it's cheaper to do so than use manned aircraft, will be outfitted with anything close to being capable, smart or reliable enough to do the job, if such systems even exist, which I doubt is the case. And if they don't, don't expect them to be conceived, built, tested, certificated and installed in three years. It ain't gonna happen.
Hopefully, the folly of this mandate will make itself clear before the carnage begins. Which could be with the introducton of small drones (around 5 pounds -- tell my SR22 that this is "small") in 90 days and 55 pounders (yikes) in just over two years. Honda Civic-sized models could be here in just more than three.
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