The FAA should expedite its rule governing the operation of small commercial unmanned aerial systems, AOPA told the House Aviation Subcommittee in comments submitted for the record as part of a Dec. 10 hearing on UAS technology. In its statement, AOPA also recommended that the FAA take steps to address dangerous operations by recreational UAS users, including stipulating penalties.
In order to operate safely in the National Airspace System, AOPA said, commercial unmanned aircraft should be certified using a standard airworthiness certificate or other form of FAA approval, be controlled by an FAA-approved pilot or operator, and be utilized in compliance with current operating rules and airspace requirements, including see-and-avoid capabilities.
Commercial UAS are currently allowed to operate only with an FAA waiver. On the day of the hearing, the agency granted five new regulatory exemptions to four companies, bringing the total number of exemptions to 11. The newest waivers will allow the use of UAS for aerial surveying, construction site monitoring, and oil rig flare stack inspections. To obtain the exemptions, the companies had to demonstrate they could maintain an equivalent level of safety to other aircraft.
In addition to concerns over commercial operations, an increasing number of incidents involving recreational UAS pose a potential threat to aviation operations, AOPA told the subcommittee. The FAA limits recreational UAS operations to altitudes below 400 feet, requires that they be flown within sight of the operator, and puts restrictions on operations in the vicinity of airports and aircraft. Despite these rules, the FAA has received reports from pilots and air traffic controllers describing 193 UAS encounters so far this year.
“It is clear that many of the people flying UAS have little or no knowledge of the rules under which other airspace users operate,” AOPA wrote in its statement. “It is also clear from online videos that operators are flying near airports, in the clouds, and in congested airspace.”
AOPA is encouraging the FAA to issue clear guidance for recreational UAS operations and ask manufacturers to include that information in product packaging. AOPA also wants the FAA to work with associations to improve educational outreach to recreational UAS operators, establish penalties for reckless UAS operations, and publish guidance for pilots on how to file timely reports on UAS encounters.
Dangerous commercial and recreational UAS operations have also raised concerns for the AOPA Air Safety Institute, an arm of the nonprofit AOPA Foundation that provides free safety education for pilots and flight instructors, analyzes safety data, and conducts safety research.
“Radio controlled model aircraft have been around for decades. The difference—and the challenge—now is the proliferation of low cost, multi-rotor ‘drone’ aircraft that take little or no training to operate and are often flown beyond line of sight using ‘point of view’ systems,” said George Perry, Air Safety Institute senior vice president. “Technology moves fast, and government bureaucracies like the FAA do not. It’s clear to anyone who has been following ‘the rise of the drone’ that there are several safety concerns and the FAA is struggling with how best to deal with those.”
AOPA has been involved in UAS regulatory issues since 1991, when the FAA tasked an aviation rulemaking advisory committee with developing guidance for UAS. In 2004, AOPA asked the FAA to create a government-industry working group to develop consensus standards for operating small UAS weighing 55 pounds or less. AOPA served on the group and the FAA accepted the resulting consensus standards in 2007, but has yet to release a proposed rule.
In the meantime, the FAA has relied on outdated guidance to govern the use of UAS, including Advisory Circular 91-57, which was drafted in 1981. That guidance “does not address commercial UAS operations or line-of-sight and point-of-view operations because in 1981 commercial applications for model aircraft were almost non-existent and having images beamed back to the user to be displayed in Google glasses was science fiction,” AOPA wrote in its statement.
During Wednesday’s hearing, the subcommittee heard from representatives of the FAA, the Government Accountability Office, the Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General, the airline industry, and the UAS industry.