More unmanned aircraft on horizon, AOPA raises safety concerns

March 10, 2005

More unmanned aircraft on horizon, AOPA raises safety concerns

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Altair/Predator B (courtesy of NASA)

FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey says a "big step" was made this month toward integrating unmanned aircraft (UA) into the National Airspace System when the FAA issued the first airworthiness certificate for a commercial unmanned aircraft. But instead of handing out certificates for individual projects, AOPA thinks UAs should meet the same certification and operational standards as piloted aircraft, and that they need to fit into the existing airspace system without any negative effects on general aviation operations.

"Safety is paramount. Protecting pilots and their passengers from unsafe UA operations should be the top priority for the FAA," said Randy Kenagy, AOPA senior director of advanced technology. "The timely creation of policy and regulations that establish a safe operating environment is critically important."

Called the Altair, the newly certified aircraft is a high-altitude research version of the military Predator B built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems of San Diego. It has an 86-foot wingspan, carries 3,000 pounds of fuel, and can fly up to 52,000 feet with its Honeywell turboprop engine. The Experimental-category airworthiness certificate requires the Altair to be operated only in good weather and be under the supervision of a pilot and observer who may be located on the ground or in a chase-plane. The airworthiness certificate also authorizes the Altair, developed at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, to operate above previously used test altitudes and expands its geographic operations.

The FAA has been issuing certificates of authorization (COAs) for each and every UA operation, which are flown in conjunction with government activities. There are provisions to make sure the UAs don't present collision risks to piloted aircraft. AOPA has requested that the FAA publicly coordinate these COAs so that the public has the opportunity to express concerns about proposed operations. To date, the FAA has denied the request.

It will be five to 10 years before research is complete that will lead to widespread use of UAs in the civil airspace system, a NASA spokesman said. As UAs begin to enter mainstream airspace areas, without spotters or chase-planes, AOPA will strive to ensure that these aircraft are operating at the same level of operational safety as the pilots and aircraft flown by the AOPA membership.

For more information on UAs, see AOPA's issue brief.

October 3, 2005