September 8, 2004
AOPA will lead the advisory committee that will set key standards for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) flying in U.S. airspace.
"We volunteered for this job because we want to make sure that these unmanned aircraft don't have an impact on our members, literally and figuratively," said Andy Cebula, AOPA senior vice president of Government and Technical Affairs. "Before UAVs are ever released into general airspace, they'll have to be able to do what a pilot in a Cessna 172 does - see and avoid other aircraft, operate within the confines of today's ATC system, and operate without special conditions or special services such as being able to deal with emergencies without endangering other aircraft."
AOPA has accepted the role as co-chair of RTCA's Special Committee 203, which will in essence write the UAV certification standards. RTCA is a private, not-for-profit membership organization that functions as a Federal Advisory Committee. RTCA advisory committees bring together government, industry, and academic experts to develop recommendations to be used by the FAA and the aviation community.
UAV operations in the U.S. are currently very limited. The drones fly within special-use airspace, either restricted areas or military operations areas. Outside of such airspace, UAV operations must have a "Certificate of Authorization" approved by both the air traffic and flight standards branches of the FAA. The operations have to be conducted within strict parameters, including using chase planes and/or ground spotters to monitor their activity.
AOPA has consistently advocated that UAVs must be as safe as piloted aircraft (See " No UAV close encounters.")
"Currently there are no UAVs or UAV pilots certified by the FAA," said Randy Kenagy, AOPA senior director of advanced technology and co-chairman of the UAV advisory committee.
"There's no doubt that UAVs are coming, and there is increased pressure on the FAA to approve their operation in the system. It is critical that these unmanned aircraft do not endanger other aircraft or result in restricting airspace. We will develop consensus standards involving both the UAV community and existing airspace users," said Kenagy.
There are some tough hurdles to jump before UAVs can share our airspace.
"Consider operating from a public-use airport," said Kenagy. "The UAV not only will have to 'detect and avoid' other aircraft, it will have to fit into the traffic pattern and communicate its intentions to other pilots."
Then consider emergencies. Some plans call for UAVs to fly at very high altitudes, well above general aviation and commercial airline operations. But what happens if there is an engine failure, and the aircraft has to descend through civilian traffic?
"Our benchmark for the standards will be a piloted vehicle operating VFR," said Kenagy. "Only when a UAV can fit into the system with the same level of safety will it be ready to share our airspace."
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