Congress to Open U.S. Skies to Drones in Three Years

Aviation member organizations are celebrating a historic victory with Congressional passage of an FAA reauthorization bill yesterday that includes no user fees. While celebration is certainly in order, a major, troubling part of the bill has escaped largely unnoticed: the mandated opening of U.S. airspace to drone aircraft — aka, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in just three years.

If signed into law by by President Obama — which is expected to happen--the legislation would not permit but require widespread deployment of unmanned aircraft throughout the national airspace system by 2015, with some major deployments mandated even sooner. Very small UAS would be allowed access in as little as 90 days, and models as large as 55 pounds would be granted access in just 27 months. The law sets a deadline of all UAS being integrated into the NAS in just over three years (by Sept. 30, 2015).

The scale of the proposed regulation is enormous. It requires no less than the establishment of airspace requirements, methods for ensuring the safe operation of UAS, integrating both DoD and private commercial UAS operations with air traffic control and ensuring the plan is in keeping with the FAA’s next generation air traffic plan. The legislation doesn’t address how the FAA, an agency whose funding is already spread thin, will accommodate the new requirements for large-scale regulation of a new aircraft type, which will surely provide numerous technological challenges that are not even acknowledged never mind addressed in the legislation.

Congress’ proposal does not address how unmanned aircraft would co-exist with manned aircraft in today’s system. Much of today’s air traffic system safety strategy is based on see-and-avoid technology, which relies fundamentally on manned operation of aircraft. How a controller will issue a traffic alert to a UAS is unknown. How the UAS will “see” other traffic is unknown. How they will avoid other traffic is, likewise, unknown and unaddressed in the legislation.

The legislation’s only guidance on the subject of potential collisions is that the FAA administrator must “provide for verification of the safety of unmanned aircraft systems and related navigation procedures before integration into the national airspace system.”

The pace of adoption will be head spinning. The legislation would allow emergency agencies, such as law enforcement. to begin flying UAS in limited cases within three months. These craft could weigh up to nearly five pounds. UAS up to 55 pounds could take to the open skies in just over two years.

The FAA is working on a notice of proposed rulemaking on unmanned aircraft but has not announced a date for publishing it yet. The craft exist today in a state of regulatory limbo: they are neither specifically allowed or prohibited from flying in most airspace. This is one issue the new regulations will address.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the nation’s largest pilot member association, is concerned about the legislation. Heidi Williams, AOPA VP of Air Traffic Services and Modernization, summarized the organization’s position by saying that “while AOPA supports the integration of UAS into the national airspace system, it must be done in a way that does not adversely affect the safety or operations of existing airspace operators.” Williams pointed out the lack of current collision avoidance technology, saying that “UAS currently lack the necessary technologies to safely operate in a 'see and avoid' environment. In order to safely operate in the airspace system without segregation and without any negative impact on general aviation, we need clear certification standards that UAS and UAS operators can meet that allow the systems to be integrated just like piloted aircraft.”

At the National Business Aviation Association, Steve Brown, senior VP of Operations, expressed concern over the rapid timetable for adoption: “Our position [at NBAA] has been to support UAS access to the NAS based on an FAA Safety assessment and certification process that would ensure safe flight integration with human piloted aircraft.” But based on the ambitious timetable and scope of the plan, Brown said, it was unclear whether “the legislation would accommodate FAA's safety work by 2015 or any other future date.”

Doug Macnair, VP of government affairs for the Experimental Aircraft Association, was on the same page: "The bottom line is," he told Flying, "that UAS need to find a means of working seamlessly and safely into the existing NAS and not deprive other users of airspace or operational safety and efficiency."


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