AOPA has prompted the FAA to keep an unregulated unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operation out of navigable airspace above one North Carolina community.
"Safety is paramount, and current airspace users must be assured that a reasonable level of safety can be maintained," said Melissa Rudinger, AOPA vice president of regulatory affairs. "The prospect of small UAVs flitting around in the same airspace we use is frightening. We know what kind of damage a 5-pound bird can do to a GA aircraft. Imagine what would happen if you hit a 14-pound UAV?"
The issue came to head when AOPA learned that the Gaston County Police Department in North Carolina had bought a "CyberBUG" UAV from Cyber Defense Systems. The company sells the small radio-controlled drones as cheap helicopter substitutes for police, military, and news gathering uses.
The company says the 14-pound UAV cruises at 29 mph at 1,300 feet agl, which puts it easily into navigable airspace and creates a potential midair collision hazard.
"What do you think your chances are of seeing this thing before you hit it?" said Rudinger. "And it can't sense you or get out of the way."
AOPA contacted the FAA, which initially said it had no authority to stop the flights. So AOPA President Phil Boyer bucked the issue up to senior agency officials. That resulted in regional FAA officials contacting the police department, which agreed to voluntarily abide by the provisions of Advisory Circular 91-57, "Model Aircraft Operating Standards," which require the drones to remain clear of navigable airspace and below 400 feet agl.
"AOPA has been pushing for two years to get the FAA to issue guidance on UAV operations and their integration into the National Airspace System," said Rudinger. "This isn't the final solution, but it's a step in the right direction."
The association said that UAV operators and their drones should be certified to meet the operating requirements that manned aircraft currently meet, and that includes the ability to sense and avoid other aircraft.
This isn't the first time law enforcement has flown the CyberBUG. The company claims it was used to watch for "unruly behavior" and "alert authorities about accidents" during the 12th Annual Southern Maryland "Blessing of the Bikes" in La Plata. And the company also sells a much larger 70-pound, turbine-powered drone that cruises at 250 knots.
"These UAVs currently fall into a regulatory gray zone," said Rudinger. "Because of their relatively low cost, we can expect that many more jurisdictions may try to put these collision hazards aloft. That's why AOPA will continue to advocate that the FAA take regulatory control."
February 15, 2006