The Drone Advisory Committee, which was created to provide the FAA with advice on unmanned aircraft integration from a diverse group of stakeholders (including AOPA), approved its first set of significant recommendations during a Nov. 8 meeting at Amazon headquarters in Seattle. The committee signed off on task group recommendations that urged the FAA to prioritize enabling flights beyond the pilot's line of sight inside Mode C veils and below 400 feet.
Consensus on other areas within the committee’s assigned purview proved more elusive.
For example, there is the issue of how to pay for FAA and industry efforts to integrate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the national airspace. Pilots of unmanned aircraft have no need to pay aviation fuel taxes, which are an important source of revenue to fund the FAA’s regulation of manned aircraft and airport infrastructure, among other things. At the Nov. 8 meeting, FAA Deputy Administrator Dan Elwell noted that the FAA lacks the authority to implement new funding mechanisms on its own, which means that any consensus that might emerge from ongoing work by the task group assigned to this question will likely require action by Congress to implement.
Establishing and clarifying the roles and responsibilities of federal, state, and local governments on matters of regulation and enforcement has proved to be one of the thorniest issues. San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee circulated a sharply worded letter accusing the task group assigned to study these roles of a lack of transparency. Lee’s objections may prove moot, however: The FAA is working to refocus this task group and ensure it does not duplicate the efforts of the pilot program launched by the U.S. Department of Transportation (at the direction of President Donald Trump) on Nov. 2.
The pilot program is designed to directly involve state, local, and tribal governments in the testing and development of advanced unmanned aircraft operations such as flights beyond line of sight. The FAA briefed Drone Advisory Committee members Nov. 8 that 633 parties have already indicated interest in participating, along with 20 state and local governments, agencies, and universities that have applied to lead projects. Notice of the program was published Nov. 8 in the Federal Register, establishing various deadlines for governments, agencies, and interested parties from industry to apply to participate in the months to come.
More clarity emerged from the Nov. 8 meeting on the matter of unmanned aircraft flights beyond the pilot’s visual range, or beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), as these operations are known. The task group studying UAS airspace access produced consensus that the full committee adopted with minor clarifying changes. The task group had been asked by the FAA and committee to study and recommend, among other things, which UAS operations and missions, beyond those currently permitted, the FAA should focus on enabling. The group’s recommendations urged the FAA to prioritize low-altitude BVLOS operations within the Mode C veil surrounding Class B airports. Most manned aircraft are required to transmit altitude information in this airspace, which allows controllers to pinpoint both position and altitude in real time using radar data. The presence of manned aircraft broadcasting positional information would enable remote pilots to more safely “see and avoid” manned aircraft in this airspace, accelerating the integration of UAS.
The task group and committee noted there remain challenges to ensuring the safe separation of all aircraft, however, even in this information-rich environment, including the potential presence of manned aircraft that were certified long ago without electrical systems, and are thus exempt from the Mode C transponder requirement. Population density also is typically higher in these areas, and will require other measures to mitigate risk to people below, but the committee agreed with the task group that Mode C airspace is where risk mitigations can likely be most effective. The new pilot program is expected to assist the FAA in obtaining the data necessary for enabling more routine BVLOS operations at lower altitudes.
“The work the committee has done so far has brought clarity to important issues for safely integrating UAS into the national airspace, and identified a number of difficult questions needing further study,” said AOPA Director of Regulatory Affairs Justin Barkowski, who attended the meeting. “But that’s not particularly surprising given the complexity of integrating a new type of aircraft with unprecedented capabilities. The good news is that AOPA is actively involved in the process, and remains optimistic that solutions that work for all pilots, manned and unmanned, will be the eventual outcome.”
For those interested in a detailed look at the work of the committee and the various task groups, RTCA (which is providing management support) has posted agendas, minutes, and supporting documents online.