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AOPA objects to proposed drone rules

Rulemaking committee report submitted with much dissent

Editor's note: This story was updated March 22 to add additional information for context.

An FAA rulemaking committee tasked with proposing a regulatory framework to safely integrate drones flown beyond visual line of sight into the world’s most complex airspace produced a final report, though it failed to achieve consensus on several important issues.

A right-of-way scheme proposed by an FAA advisory committee would give small uncrewed aircraft like this one the right of way over balloons, helicopters, and airplanes that are not broadcasting position information electronically, a dangerous and nonsensical approach that AOPA strongly opposes. Photo by Jim Moore.

The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Beyond Visual Line of Sight Aviation Rulemaking Committee was created in June in response to a congressional directive that the FAA enable BVLOS operations as soon as possible.

“While we appreciate that the committee did not recommend another equipment mandate for general aviation, we have significant concerns with the recommendation to upend long-established right-of-way rules to grant right-of-way based on aircraft equipment rather than on maneuverability,” said AOPA Senior Director of Regulatory Affairs Christopher Cooper. “We will continue to work with all stakeholders, including other organizations representing helicopters and other low-altitude operators such as agricultural applicators, and the FAA, to safely integrate drones operating beyond visual line of sight without compromising safety.”

The committee’s final report spans nearly 400 pages, not including dissents filed by AOPA and other groups representing both traditional and new airspace users. The rulemaking advisory effort was led by industry co-chairs Sean Cassidy of Amazon Prime Air and Eileen Lockhart of Air Methods (who previously worked for and represented Xcel Energy for most of her tenure on the committee).

While AOPA fundamentally supports the safe integration of drones and the many beneficial uses thereof, including package delivery and public safety, that would be enabled by allowing routine BVLOS operations (currently allowed only under waivers), Cooper focused on two key issues in a six-page statement of non-concurrence submitted to the ARC leadership a week before the final report was published. Cooper’s stated concerns include the omission of AOPA’s and other dissenting views from the final report that was published March 10.

Of greater concern, from AOPA’s perspective, was the advisory committee's proposal to fundamentally change the right-of-way regulations in a way that would allow drones operating beyond visual line of sight to have no responsibility to avoid certain crewed aircraft that routinely operate in lower altitudes.

The ARC’s final report recommended “a series of modifications to the right of way rules in Low Altitude Shielded Areas (within 100 [feet] of a structure or critical infrastructure… and in Low Altitude Non-Shielded Areas (below 400 [feet]) to accommodate UA operations." In addition to fundamentally creating two new types of airspace, the committee encouraged the FAA to establish a complicated right-of-way scheme that gives uncrewed aircraft operating beyond visual line of sight right of way over crewed aircraft that are not broadcasting position information via ADS-B or other means.

Cooper urged the committee leaders to remove these and other related recommendations because it did not take into consideration the reality of aircraft operations in the same environments these drone operations will occur.

“The BVLOS ARC leadership supports these [change to right of way] recommendations by offering research evidencing a pilot's limitations with seeing and avoiding other aircraft, such as blocked field of views or the need to divert attention elsewhere,” Cooper wrote, noting the committee relied on a fundamentally flawed assumption that there is “little GA traffic” presently operating at low altitude. “These radical recommendations proposing to change the fundamental responsibility of avoiding other aircraft, and right-of-way rules based on maneuverability, [fail] to recognize the reality of aircraft operations at lower altitudes, and the unsafe and unfeasible requirements it will place on crewed aircraft.”

Cooper reminded the committee leaders that current regulations allow many aircraft to legally operate in the same geographic locations and altitudes at which the ARC's recommendations seek to grant right-of-way privileges to uncrewed aircraft, including (though not limited to) medical helicopters, powered parachutes, ultralights, agricultural applicators, and many others.

“Consideration should also be given to the wide-open areas many of these aircraft can take off and land at, including over 14,000 published private use and 5,000 public use airports in the United States. AOPA strongly disagrees with the ARC leadership’s characterization that very few aircraft operate at these lower altitudes," Cooper wrote. “It is unfortunate the BVLOS ARC leadership failed to recognize the reality of shared aircraft operations at lower altitudes, but we hope the FAA will carefully take this important reality into consideration during its BVLOS rulemaking.”

Other aviation groups including the Air Line Pilots Association, Helicopter Association International, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, and Aerospace Industries Association voiced similar concern about the potential for substantial degradation of safety.

AOPA supports voluntary adoption of technologies that increase situational awareness and safety by crewed aircraft, such as ADS-B, angle of attack indicators, and even a computer vision system developed for drones that is now being adapted for broader use by crewed aircraft. However, the ARC’s recommendation to change right-of-way rules between aircraft based solely on electronic technologies such as ADS-B or traffic awareness beacon systems (TABS), is also troubling. ADS-B has certain limitations that can make it unreliable for situational awareness purposes, and for many aircraft that operate in lower altitudes, ADS-B cannot physically or regulatorily be safely installed. And although AOPA is familiar with TABS, “the BVLOS ARC report provides little to no background or explanation of the technology, its benefits, or its limitations, and how it might specifically provide a pathway to justify a change in right-of-way rules.”

Cooper noted that the report completely ignores the safety and practical implications for why right-of-way rules based on maneuverability between aircraft are so important:

“Finally, reliance on electronic conspicuity to alter see (detect) and avoid and right-of-way rules completely eviscerates the safety considerations for basing right-of-way rules on maneuverability. Would a less maneuverable drone be required to give way to a highly maneuverable crewed aircraft with ADS-B? Would a balloon without an ADS-B or TABS device be expected to give way to a drone? Between two BVLOS drones, who would have the right-of-way? If the rationale for imposing these new right-of-way rules is that the risk is so low for a collision at lower altitudes, then why have right-of-way rules to begin with? If right-of-way rules [become] a function of conspicuity rather than maneuverability (or the fundamental principle to avoid another aircraft), then arguably a transport category aircraft with ADS-B would have right-of-way over a balloon without ADS-B or TABS. AOPA does not believe this is an outcome the FAA nor the aviation industry should adopt for the interest of safety or the public benefit.”

AOPA urged the ARC (and the FAA) to maintain shared responsibility for collision avoidance, and to require uncrewed aircraft to have “some form of detect and avoid capability (e.g., onboard, ground, hybrid, etc.) for BVLOS operations that meets FAA performance requirements (in conjunction with industry consensus standards) to meet a shared responsibility to see (detect) and avoid other aircraft (both crewed and uncrewed).”

Cooper noted other areas of the ARC report that AOPA does support, including the recommendation to include uncrewed operations in the Aviation Safety Reporting System and highlighting the importance of the safety culture that has long been a hallmark of the aviation industry, and appreciated that the ARC did not recommend another equipment mandate that AOPA has consistently and vigorously opposed.

AOPA was among 10 members to submit a statement of non-concurrence with the final report. Another 20 members concurred with additional comments, and 12 members either abstained or did not submit a ballot. Forty-four members of the ARC concurred with the report.

Jim Moore
Jim Moore
Managing Editor-Digital Media
Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.

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