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Unmanned aircraft, NextGen top of mind for GAUnmanned aircraft, NextGen top of mind for GA

Two senior AOPA executives advocated general aviation’s positions on the impact of a changing National Airspace System at an industry symposium on Sept. 22.

Participating in the RTCA Inc. fall symposium in Washington, D.C., Thomas B. Haines, AOPA senior vice president and editor-in-chief, moderated a panel discussion on “Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS): What’s in a Name?” Melissa Rudinger, AOPA senior vice president of government affairs, took part in a panel updating attendees on the implementation of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). RTCA Inc. is a private, not-for-profit corporation that develops consensus-based recommendations on air traffic management system issues, and serves as an advisory committee to the FAA.

Safe integration of UAS into the National Airspace System faces daunting technical obstacles, said Haines. AOPA does not object to that goal “as long as pilot safety is not compromised, nor is access.” The failure of a UAS communications link in August, causing an unmanned craft to go astray until contact was re-established, demonstrates what can happen “when things don’t go well.” Reliable communication links must be assured--but the technology must also offer certainty that a UAS will respond predictably to its programming in the event of lost communication.

“You can’t put a TFR up every time you launch one of these things,” said Haines, recounting the panel discussion in an interview. On the bright side, all industry participants recognize that the benefits of UAS could be enormous with successful integration. “The ability to commercialize this is huge if the problems can be solved,” he said.

Rudinger put a spotlight on the urgency of accelerating GA’s ability to reap benefits of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) earlier in the transition from ground-based to satellite-based air traffic control. Aircraft will have to be ADS-B Out-equipped by 2020 under NextGen to operate in airspace now requiring a Mode C transponder.

Rudinger offered a compelling example of how the early identification and realization of benefits could shorten the “long transition period” by allowing better traffic flow at many airports where current radar service does not extend to the surface, now requiring a “one in and one out” process during instrument meteorological conditions. ADS-B would bring that coverage to the ground, avoiding long delays during which the airspace is “locked out until an arrival or departure is completed, she said.  

Pilots will equip sooner if the investment can be recovered sooner. In the ensuing discussion the panel explored ways to create financial incentives for upgrades.

Haines noted that the conversation on UAS integration continues to benefit from a leadership role taken by AOPA several years ago, early in the process. “We went to RTCA and said, ‘We need a special committee to oversee bringing UAS into the National Airspace System,’” he said. AOPA co-chaired the resulting industry standards group at its inception. (Three of Haines’s co-panelists at the RTCA discussion are current members.)

Haines expressed satisfaction that AOPA’s contributions to the debate continue to shape industry efforts on UAS integration. “They got it,” he said. “They are anxious to come up with technical solutions that will allow UAS to sense and avoid other aircraft.”

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.

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