UAS not ready for civilian airspace, FAA says

November 19, 2009

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt has told the Aerospace Industries Association during a speech in Phoenix that unmanned aerial systems (UAS) aren’t ready for “seamless or routine use” in the civilian airspace system.

Babbitt’s speech confirmed AOPA’s stance that UAS must be able to “sense and avoid” other aircraft and noted two committees that the association is participating in to oversee how the vehicles will fit into the national airspace system. AOPA has been actively advocating on behalf of members on the UAS issue for many years.

“The issue here stateside is safety, and it is rule number one for everyone in the NAS,” Babbitt told the audience. “And being able to see-and-avoid is a fundamental part of that rule.” Pilots have expressed safety concerns to AOPA about the ability of the UAS to sense-and-avoid.

“We can’t give you the thumbs up,” he said bluntly. He noted that UAS are the wave of the future, and designers of the next generation air transportation system are considering unmanned aircraft.

“While the UAS is undoubtedly the way of the future, my concern must be on today, and right now, the era of the unmanned aircraft system in civilian airspace is just not here yet,” Babbitt said.

Babbitt also explained the catastrophic ramifications of an accident between a UAS and manned aircraft.

“We know the headlines following the helicopter accident over the Hudson on Aug. 8. That was followed by two Congressional hearings and calls to immediately shut down all traffic over the Hudson or sharply curtail these operations,” Babbitt said.

“Now can you even imagine if one of those aircraft had been an unmanned system? With the headline: ‘Unmanned robot plane crash kills 9.’ How do you think the Congress would react to that headline—after they confirmed my replacement?”

Babbitt said in fiscal year 2009 there were 20,000 UAS flights in civilian airspace for a total of 2,500 flight hours, and that the number of such flights approved by the FAA has tripled since 2007. But he said sense-and-avoid systems must improve before UAS are granted routine access. The flights were either conducted in restricted areas or in limited cases by certificate of authorizations with highly restricted limitations (line-of-sight operations at very low altitudes) in order to safeguard pilots flying in the national airspace system.

“Given that unmanned aircraft are becoming the method of choice to conduct mapping, fire detection, scientific missions, weather mapping, volcanic sampling, search and rescues, disaster response and security surveillance, the need for standardized regulations has never been more paramount,” Babbitt said.

His blunt message seemed to indicate there is industry pressure to put UAS into the broad national airspace system immediately, and that there are markets waiting for that to happen.

“To assist and be ready for UAS reaching maturity, we have special program offices in our aviation safety and air traffic organization, military and other government organizational liaisons for UAS. We are doing what we can to help get you to market. My senior executives in Aviation Safety and Air Traffic, including Hank Krakowski, our COO, are meeting with the government executives that operate UAS in Dallas as we speak,” Babbitt said. He added that UAS are at the same point as jet engines when they were first coming into use.