Mid-2013 is the latest estimate for when the Federal Aviation Administration will allow operators of small unmanned aerial vehicles to fly in national airspace without having to go through a lengthy bureaucratic certification process, according to an agency official.
That day can’t come soon enough for UAV manufacturers, who want to expand their market beyond the military. Police departments, for example, are keenly interested in using small remotely piloted aircraft to fly over cities. They are quieter, and much less expensive, to operate than a helicopter.
Rick Prosek, manager of the FAA’s unmanned aircraft program office, said a committee to write the proposed rules for operating the aircraft was formed in June.
“We are plowing through the small UAS rule to put that on the street,” he said at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference.
There will be a lengthy process of producing a draft, comment periods, and then the finalizing of the procedures operators will have to go through to launch, fly and land small UAVs, just as general aviation pilots do every day without having to notify Washington.
Currently, any entity wishing to fly an unmanned aircraft in national airspace must obtain a certificate of authorization from the FAA.
The office has 285 active COAs with 85 organizations for a total of 82 aircraft, said Randy Willis, who is in charge of approving the certificates for military operations.
“It is a very wide, broad range of aircraft and capabilities that come to our office,” he said.
Pressure to allow regular UAV flights is coming from both industry and the military.
The services can fly their aircraft in restricted airspace over their bases, but want to expand their reach as more of the unmanned aircraft that are currently in Iraq and Afghanistan return to the United States. Pilots and operators will need more room to train on their systems.
A recent collision between unmanned and manned aircraft in Afghanistan was poor timing for those hoping the FAA speeds up the rulemaking process. It involved an Army RQ-7 Shadow UAV and an Air Force Special Operations Command MC-130.
“Had we been operating a ground-based sense-and-avoid system at the time of that incident, it would have been completely averted,” the Army’s deputy project manager for unmanned aircraft systems, Timothy Owings, told reporters during a briefing.
UAVs’ ability to automatically sense-and-avoid other aircraft has been a technological sticking point that has prevented more widespread use of unmanned systems in national airspace. The FAA doesn’t believe that onboard systems are good enough. The Army has developed ground-based radars that would scan the skies for obstacles and then communicate the data to the unmanned system.
Officials do not want this incident to fuel perceptions that unmanned aircraft are unsafe. “It’s important to build that case base that we can, and will, operate effectively … to start operating more in national airspace,” he said.
During three nights of flight testing in April of the first phase of the sense-and-avoid system, the Army flew the MQ-1C Gray Eagle at El Mirage, Calif., for just over 11 hours in the presence of FAA observers. Using the collision avoidance system, the skies were clear of conflicting air traffic 80 percent of the time, said Mary Ottman, deputy product director for UAS airspace integration concepts. Officials are pursuing discussions with the FAA to resume flight tests.
Meanwhile, there are organizations that want the FAA to take a slow approach to rulemaking.
“We want to make sure before this cake is taken out of the oven it is fully baked,” said Sean Cassidy, national safety coordinator with the Airline Pilots Association of America.
“We want to ensure that all pilots are well trained. We want to part of the solution, not part of the problem,” he added.
Chris Stevenson, of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said it is vital that members of his organization be involved in discussions from the beginning. The introduction of unpiloted aircraft would alter virtually every page of their handbooks. There will have to be line-by-line changes in procedures, he said.
“We have more questions than we have answers … This is a big, big cultural change,” he said.
Additional reporting by Grace V. Jean