Restricted airspace for UAS would set dangerous precedent

‘Integrated approach’ advocated for unmanned operations

October 7, 2010

AOPA continues to hold discussions with the Air Force in an effort to avoid new restricted airspace being created for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) operations from Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota. The association has called for an integrated approach to introducing UAS operations into the National Airspace System, rather than one that curtails access for general aviation pilots and other users.

The Air Force recently released a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and Record of Decision (ROD) in which it stated its intention to establish new special-use airspace near Grand Forks for operating unmanned aircraft, which it refers to as remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). Two types of RPA would be based at Grand Forks Air Force Base under the 2005 Base Closure and Realignment process: the MQ-1, known as the Predator, and the RQ-4, known as the Global Hawk, which also flies missions from California’s Beale Air Force Base.

According to the ROD, areas for RPA training sorties, mostly flown by Predators, would be created by adding restricted airspace from the eastern portion of the Devils Lake Military Operations Area (MOA) above 6,000 feet msl, and expanding the airspace above and around R-5401. Stratified restricted areas would provide an RPA transit corridor from Grand Forks Air Force Base to the proposed Devils Lake restricted area.

At this early stage, the Air Force has not submitted an aeronautical proposal to the FAA. AOPA will advise members of all opportunities to comment on such plans as the Air Force and FAA move toward a final rulemaking process.

AOPA has consistently opposed new airspace restrictions, pointing out in a regulatory brief that an operation must be regarded as hazardous before restricted airspace is required—a condition that does not apply to UAS flights.

The association advocates integrating UAS into the National Airspace System, not segregating them in special-use airspace. Achieving the goal will require further technological development of UAS to provide safe co-existence with manned aircraft by guaranteeing that UAS will perform in a predictable manner in the event of mechanical failure or communications loss.

“We’re not there yet,” said Heidi Williams AOPA senior director of airspace and modernization, adding that members will be kept fully informed of all opportunities to submit comments.