Airlines should not expect to see unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) flying regularly in U.S. airspace “anytime soon,” a senior official with the Federal Aviation Administration told pilots August 7. The assurance came amid continuing reports of unauthorized UAS flights near airliners.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta “has made it clear regarding the entry of UASs into the [airspace] system. It’s going to be done in a prudent, step-by-step way, with safety foremost in our minds,” John Hickey, the agency’s deputy associate administrator for aviation safety, told the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) Air Safety Forum. While the agency has allowed some commercial operations of small unmanned aircraft by exemption to its current rules, it will take “slow, deliberative steps before letting UASs into more busy airspace,” he added.
Hickey served on a panel with other aviation officials moderated by ALPA aviation safety chairman Chuck Hogeman, who opened the discussion by mentioning an effort to certify a “200-pound helicopter” to fly in unrestricted airspace—a reference to the unmanned Yamaha Rmax precision-farming helicopter. The state of regulations governing unmanned aircraft, more popularly known as “drones,” dominated the discussion, reflecting airline pilots’ concern over potential airspace conflicts. In a report on August 4, ABC News, citing a “senior aviation official,” said there had been 10 incidents in the previous 30 days in which unmanned aircraft flew close to passenger jets in the New York area, in some cases forcing pilots to take evasive action.
Under pressure from the unmanned aircraft industry and Congress, the FAA plans to allow some commercial operations of small UAS by exemption under Section 333 of the 2012 FAA reauthorization act. Operators seeking exemptions are involved in filmmaking, precision agriculture, powerline and pipeline inspection and oil and gas flare stack inspection. The FAA has said it will release a long-delayed draft rulemaking in November to standardize the regulation of small UAS. Standards that will facilitate flights of larger UAS in unrestricted airspace are under development by RTCA Special Committee 228, which aims to deliver them in July 2016.
Also on August 7, the FAA announced that it has granted a certificate of authorization (COA) allowing unmanned aircraft testing by Griffiss International Airport in Rome, N.Y., the fifth of six national UAS test sites to begin operating. Griffiss is the operating arm of the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance (NUAIR), which includes participation by New York and Massachusetts. The two-year COA allows Cornell Cooperative Extension to fly a small, sensor equipped fixed-wing aircraft, the PrecisionHawk Lancaster Hawkeye Mk III, to monitor crops at a farm in western New York. NUAIR and Griffiss will manage the test flights.
Canada already allows commercial UAS flights; operators must first obtain and comply with the conditions of a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC). Transport Canada issued 155 SFOCs in 2011. Last year, the regulatory agency issued 945 SFOCs for commercial and other unmanned aircraft operations.
“Clearly the volume is increasing,” said Martin Eley, Transport Canada director general for civil aviation. “The challenge is being able to put a fence around it.” Eley said a working group aims to standardize the present case-by-case regulation of UAS weighing less than 25 kg (55 pounds) in the next year or two. He concurred with Hickey that introducing larger air vehicles into unrestricted airspace will take years more because of the technological hurdles involved.