Helicopter operators who once viewed drones with deep distrust and apprehension are increasingly inclusive in their approach to unmanned aviation. At the Helicopter Association International 2017 Heli-Expo convention, to be held March 6 through 8 in Dallas, a drone safety symposium is only the beginning.
The annual show dedicated to all things rotorcraft has in past years made limited mention of drones and offered little or nothing in the way of content and education specifically for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) operators. That is changing. This year, drone-relevant education and outreach is being provided by government officials, HAI members, and other safety experts (including the Unmanned Safety Institute staff).
“We were grounded a couple of times by drones,” Sweet said in a telephone interview days ahead of the 2017 Heli-Expo. Sweet said he was too new on the job to present an official HAI position on drones, but he said there’s growing consensus in the industry that drones are here to stay, even among operators who still oppose the transition.
“You may not like them, but it’s not going to make them go away,” Sweet said.
Sweet said he was not surprised that AOPA has begun accepting remote pilots as full members. AOPA announced in late February that it is offering all members access to drone education and training products, expert advice and assistance, and other services such as insurance. The overarching goal is to educate drone newcomers and instill respect for safety rules, regulations, and best practices among all pilots, regardless of where they sit or stand during flight.
“It makes sense,” Sweet said of AOPA offering membership to drone pilots. He said recreational pilots, those who have not demonstrated by passing an exam the knowledge of airspace and other matters required for airman certification under Part 107, are still flying too often without knowledge of (or regard for) the rules.
“It’s not the professionals that are doing it,” Sweet said, echoing a widely held view among industry observers and insiders. “It’s the hobbyists.”
Sweet said DJI (the worldwide civil drone market leader) is among a growing list of drone companies exhibiting at Heli-Expo this year. In addition to exhibits, the convention kicks off with an HAI Safety Symposium March 6 at 8 a.m. in Ballroom D. The topic: “Integration of UAS into the (National Airspace System).” Also on the schedule, an overview of current UAS research presented by FAA staff on March 7, two presentations on “Cultivating a Safety Culture in Every UAS Enterprise” by the Unmanned Safety Institute March 7 and 8, and an hour-long review of Part 107 by the HAI Unmanned Aircraft Systems Committee March 8 at 11:45 a.m., which will detail steps required to obtain a remote pilot certificate. That is no coincidence: A growing number of manned helicopter pilots and operators are adding drones to their fleets.
“We know that there are companies like Era down in the Gulf that are using (drones) for petroleum tower inspections, (utility company) Eversouce doing power line inspections,” Sweet said. “Our focus is always to try to get them to do it safely … do it the right way.”
Sweet said HAI has taken much the same approach to UAS as AOPA, with new efforts to promote safety through education, inclusion, and collaboration.
A few days ahead of the convention, on Feb. 23, the FAA announced its latest batch of drone sighting reports, this latest batch including 1,274 reports received between Feb. 1, 2016, and Sept. 30, 2016, from pilots, passengers, controllers, ground observers, law enforcement personnel, and others. Like previous spreadsheet releases, the number included relatively few with obvious or serious safety implications, though many reports lack detail, and in some cases those filing the reports were unsure what they saw. Former NTSB member and current aviation consultant, professor, and writer John Goglia noted in an article published in Forbes Feb. 26 that data compiled to date appears to contain many reports of questionable identification: “It’s very difficult to distinguish small objects from a moving plane or to distinguish a drone from a bird or balloon.”
Goglia all but called the reports a waste of time to compile, and focused most of his attention on a set of 59 sightings reported between Sept. 1 and Sept. 16; none of those involved a reported close encounter.
“Reporting drone sightings that cannot be verified and appear to have no safety impact doesn’t make much sense. At a minimum these reports should be screened to eliminate those sightings that are too speculative to reach conclusions about and focus on the handful that appear to have potential safety impacts,” Goglia wrote.
Taking a somewhat broader look at the data, examining the 473 reports filed between July 1 and Sept. 30, reveals a total of 30 reported sightings (6.3 percent of the total for the period) classified as either a “near midair collision” or indicative of dangerous drone flight near the final approach course or runway traffic pattern, or within airspace restricted for firefighting. Among those 30 reports, 24 (5 percent of the 473 for the period) involved pilots who reported taking evasive action, and/or estimating drone proximity at less than 300 feet, including a couple within 30 feet.
The FAA noted in its Feb. 23 news release that no actual collision involving a manned and unmanned aircraft has been confirmed to date.
“Although the data contain several reports of pilots claiming drone strikes on their aircraft, to date the FAA has not verified any collision between a civil aircraft and a civil drone,” the agency wrote. “Every investigation has found the reported collisions were either birds, impact with other items such as wires and posts, or structural failure not related to colliding with an unmanned aircraft.”
Within hours of the FAA release on Feb. 23, DJI distributed a statement from the Drone Manufacturer’s Alliance hailing an “admirable safety record” for unmanned aircraft.
“Reputable analyses of FAA data show that many ‘possible drone sightings’ turn out to be perfectly legitimate drone flights, or objects that clearly are not drones, and we expect these latest reports will show the same pattern,” said Kara Calvert, director of the Drone Manufacturers Alliance, referring to a 2015 analysis by the Academy of Model Aeronautics that found the FAA sighting reports, while large in number, contain many cases of questionable identification or detail. “The Drone Manufacturers Alliance expects all our members’ customers to fly safely, responsibly and far away from airplanes and helicopters. That’s why our members are constantly developing new technology to enhance safety, while working closely with the FAA and promoting its Know Before You Fly campaign to encourage educated flight.”
Justin Barkowski, AOPA director of regulatory affairs, said AOPA will continue to educate and advocate for safe integration in its various roles, including the association’s membership on the Drone Advisory Committee and Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team, and other inclusive collaborations of manned and unmanned aviators.
In addition to being an ongoing supporter of the Know Before You Fly education campaign directed primarily at hobbyists, and creating benefits for drone pilots and inviting them to join, AOPA also has begun creating educational materials free to one and all, such as a useful guide on best practices for flying near airports, where the potential for a collision increases.
As manned aviation organizations opt to embrace drones rather than attempt to force that ketchup back in the bottle, private industry is also stepping up.
AirMap, a company based in Santa Monica, California, has since 2015 provided mobile mapping services for drone pilots, starting with georeferenced airport and heliport location information on mobile devices. In 2016, AirMap added automatic notification of drone flights by operators to nearby airport operators who join a network AirMap created; also in April 2016, a year after it launched, AirMap announced receipt of $15 million in venture capital funding. At the end of February 2017 the company (led by airline transport pilot, flight instructor, and aircraft owner Ben Marcus) announced another $26 million funding influx, bringing the total to more than $43 million in private investment in the AirMap's growing network, which supports more than 100,000 drone flights daily, according to a company news release.
On the manned rotorcraft side, another company, Protean LLC, has created software to enhance safety through information sharing, and presented a program called LZ Control at the 2015 Heli-Expo. The company’s then-marketing director and co-owner, Jonathan Godfrey, is now in charge of shepherding the continued expansion of LZ Control. The program has been adopted by Air Methods, a medical air transport company with operations in 48 states, among several others. LZ Control gives helicopter operators accurate information (more accurate and up to date, Godfrey said, than the FAA database, because much of the information comes from flight crews based on field observation) about the location, current status, and any known hazards affecting helicopter landing zones around the country, including those established temporarily or on demand by first responders.
“It’s crowdsourced,” said Godfrey, a partner and co-owner of Protean. He also is the sole survivor of a 2005 medical helicopter crash (unrelated to drones) that killed two fellow crew members and about which he wrote a recently published book, Max Impact: A Story of Survival. Godfrey, in a telephone interview days before the 2017 Heli-Expo, said LZ Control continues to gain acceptance and users in the manned helicopter community, and he enthusiastically supports and encourages unmanned aircraft operators to sign up for the free online service and participate in the group effort to enhance situational awareness.
“I absolutely would (encourage drone operators to download),” Godfrey said, noting the software and service are offered to all at no charge. “The dream world would be, we would be able to have drones actually know where medical helicopters are.”
Godfrey said emergency scenes are a frequent area of potential conflict between manned aircraft and unmanned aircraft. Both types of aircraft are drawn to the same house fires and car crashes for their own reasons. Making remote pilots aware of the inbound EMS aircraft before they arrive would benefit all concerned.
“It’s all well and good that you kind of have a ring around an airport,” Godfrey said, noting that medevac missions often involve landing and takeoff far from any charted airport. “We’re still sharing an airspace. There’s a natural relationship that needs to go on.”
Godfrey said his company was recently approached by the FAA to establish an experimental program to further study the benefits of more accurate mapping of both airport and off-airport landing zones, and the company also is talking to Uber, the ride-sharing company, which announced in November an ambitious plan to create on-demand air taxi service through a distributed network of small, passenger-carrying aircraft that will eventually be autonomous. Godfrey said that drones large and small will remain a fact of life for all aviators, and the boom has barely begun.
“It’s a fact: this is the future, a form of transportation that is going to explode in growth,” Godfrey said. “I am fully convinced of it. We can say doom and gloom, and it does make me a little bit nervous, but I think it’s an inevitable progress… it’s going to be fairly rapid. Why not go ahead and embrace it and grow with it and add to the safety infrastructure that we already have?”
Indeed, the NASA Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management program, and the FAA’s related Pathfinder research efforts, are developing detect-and-avoid capabilities for all aviators that leverage existing cellular data networks, as well as Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) and related NextGen air traffic management technologies to safely separate aircraft of both present and future. Many drones are already carrying ADS-B receivers and transceivers, including the newest model announced by DJI, the M200, which comes with an ADS-B receiver.
Godfrey, who also is a member of the infrastructure group within the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team (of which AOPA is also a member), said collaboration rather than isolation holds the promise of facilitating safe integration, and there is growing recognition among manned aviators that drones, in their many shapes and sizes, are not going to go away.
“I am seeing those conversations start to happen … you can resist all you want, but we need to collaborate,” Godfrey said. “That was the nature of the conversation at this last (USHST) meeting in Washington, D.C.”
The same basic conversation has been happening across the country, as manned aviators join engineers and other experts to pursue the common goal of safe sharing of airspace. Godfrey and Sweet expect more of these conversations during this year’s Heli-Expo in Dallas.