Titans of aerospace and startups alike gathered in Grand Fork, N.D., June 25 and 26 to discuss the future of unmanned aircraft in the National Airspace System. Here’s what a general aviation pilot should know about the emerging industry.
1. Don’t call them “drones.” They’ve gone by many names—drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, remotely piloted vehicles—but “drones” causes Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International President Michael Toscano the most angst. To the public, it connotes military, hostile, weaponized, and autonomous, he said. In reality, unmanned aircraft have a number of applications—search and rescue, crop monitoring, movie filming, and firefighting among them—and operating each aircraft is a human making the decisions. “There’s nothing unmanned about an unmanned system,” he said. The FAA term is “unmanned aircraft systems” (UAS), which encompasses the airframe as well as the communications link and ground station.
2. You’re already sharing the air. In addition to military training in special-use airspace, the FAA issues certificates of waiver or authorization (COAs) permitting military and public agencies to operate in certain defined, low-population areas and has begun to approve commercial operations on a case-by-case basis. Randy Willis, air traffic manager of the FAA UAS Integration Office, told attendees at the UAS Action Summit in Grand Forks that there are currently 675 authorizations for UAS to fly in the National Airspace System, with 226 more applications pending. And while the FAA says anyone operating an unmanned aircraft commercially in the U.S. must go through it first, many aren’t waiting for permission. Unauthorized flights are less predictable for other airspace users, and the FAA said it has recently seen an increase in reports of UAS sightings from pilots.
3. Look high and low. Unmanned aircraft are primarily making their debut high in the flight levels or low to the ground. High-altitude, long endurance aircraft like the Global Hawk aren’t much of a traffic hazard for GA pilots, but AOPA Vice President of Government Affairs Melissa Rudinger emphasized to attendees at the conference that GA has many operations in the lower altitudes of Class G airspace where small UAS use is expected to grow. See and avoid, the cornerstone of collision avoidance in the air, becomes “sense and avoid” or “detect and avoid” in the unmanned world, and is essential to unmanned aircraft’s integration into the National Airspace System.
4. Regulations are … good? “I would say there’s very few industries that want to be regulated,” said Toscano. “We’re one of them.” On one side, regulations will eliminate the guesswork of UAS companies trying to develop to regulatory standards that don’t yet exist. On the other side, they’ll provide a way to ensure that unmanned operations don’t threaten other users of the system. From the early emergence of unmanned aircraft technology, AOPA’s priority has been ensuring the safety of the humans in the system. The association and dozens of others signed on to a letter earlier in 2014 urging the FAA to hasten its efforts to establish regulations for small unmanned aircraft. The FAA has said it will publish a regulatory proposal establishing ground rules for the aircraft by the end of 2014.