NTSB validates AOPA's concerns about UAV ops

October 18, 2007

What standards apply to unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) design and certification? UAV "pilot" training? Integration into the National Airspace System? AOPA has repeatedly voiced these concerns to the FAA. On Oct. 16, the NTSB highlighted these same concerns and issued 22 recommendations after investigating a 2006 UAV accident.

"The NTSB is taking a serious look at the safety issues UAVs present to manned aircraft and people on the ground," said Melissa Rudinger, AOPA vice president of regulatory affairs. "Thankfully, the accident that sparked the investigation and recommendations did not involve a manned aircraft or result in any fatalities on the ground. But as AOPA has reiterated many times, that nightmare scenario could very well happen if the FAA doesn't act to regulate UAVs."

The April 25, 2006, accident involved a turboprop Predator B on a surveillance mission for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It crashed near Nogales, Ariz. The NTSB attributed the probable cause to the ground-based pilot's failure to use checklist procedures when switching operational control from a consol that became inoperable. This resulted in the fuel valve being shut off, which led to a loss of engine power.

Currently, no FAA certification or regulatory standards exist for UAVs operating in the National Airspace System. AOPA believes they should be certified to the same level of safety as piloted aircraft.

And the NTSB backed up AOPA's stance.

"This investigation has raised questions about the different standards for manned and unmanned aircraft and the safety implications of this discrepancy," said NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker. He also expressed concern about how UAVs and manned aircraft will coexist in the same airspace.

The NTSB made five recommendations to the FAA, two of which reiterate AOPA's position.

  • Require emergency procedures for piloted aircraft be applied to UAVs
  • Face-to-face communication between UAV teams and ATC to determine each other’s responsibilities, including airspace management

"Bringing UAV emergency procedures up to the same standards as manned aircraft would be a step in the right direction, but all UAV operations—not just emergency procedures—should be held to the same standard as manned aircraft," Rudinger said. "And coordination between UAV teams and ATC should help to better integrate UAVs in the National Airspace System. That integration must be seamless without temporary flight restrictions."

Customs was slammed with 17 NTSB recommendations, including many that request procedures and programs similar to those in place for piloted aircraft.

  • Implement a documented maintenance and inspection program
  • Require aviation engineering and maintenance experts to oversee the definition of maintenance tasks, creation of inspection criteria, and implementation of the maintenance and inspection program
  • Revise the pilot training program to ensure pilot proficiency in emergency procedures
  • Develop a safety plan, which ensures that hazards to the National Airspace System and people on the ground are mitigated

"These recommendations to the FAA and customs hit the nail on the head," Rudinger said. "The government needs to step up and regulate UAVs, and the best way to do that is to closely follow current guidelines for manned aircraft flying in the United States. These guidelines have proven effective for decades."