When AOPA members expressed concern about news reports of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) flying over Los Angeles, the association acted quickly to ensure members' safety. And there will be a long-term benefit to members nationwide.
The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department (LASD) was reportedly evaluating a 4-pound UAV for surveillance use over the sprawling L.A. Basin, which also happens to be some of the busiest airspace in the world. Members were rightly concerned about the risk of a midair collision with the small, radio-controlled aircraft.
AOPA staff promptly raised the issue with the FAA. Not only did that action make sure that a mini-UAV wouldn't be sharing L.A.'s airspace with GA pilots, it will also lead to a better policy controlling UAVs nationwide.
The FAA made it clear to the LASD that as a public operator, it would need a certificate of authorization (COA) and an experimental airworthiness certificate before it could fly a UAV, regardless of size, in the National Airspace System. (National airspace includes Class G, uncontrolled airspace.) Those are the same rules that apply to the larger UAVs being flown by the military and Department of Homeland Security.
Public and commercial operators aren't flying UAVs for "recreational purposes," so they are not permitted to fly remotely piloted aircraft under the provisions of the FAA's radio-controller modeler's advisory circular.
According to AOPA's FAA sources, the LASD reassured the agency that it will fully comply with all FAA regulations.
"We fly 18 helicopters ourselves. We're not going to do anything that would put aircraft at risk," LASD Commander Charles "Sid" Heal told AOPA. Heal is in charge of technology acquisition for the department.
Meanwhile, the FAA will be working with AOPA to develop guidance and procedures for UAV operations nationwide. AOPA is already part of a UAV advisory group, and FAA officials concerned about UAV operations are scheduled at AOPA headquarters later this month.
The agency will, in the future, issue new regulations concerning different types of UAV operations. AOPA will continue to insist that safety be paramount and that UAVs only be permitted to share airspace with general aviation aircraft when they have a demonstrated and certificated ability to avoid collisions with other aircraft.
Updated: June 14, 2006, 4:26 p.m. EDT