Pilots, Controllers Urge Safe Integration of Unmanned Aircraft

 - August 29, 2011, 7:20 AM
Momentum is gathering for unmanned aircraft to operate in U.S. civil airspace, but air transport industry officials don’t want this to be rushed at the expense of ensuring a safe system for them to coexist with other aircraft. (Photo: Bill Carey)

Air transport industry groups accept the inevitability of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) flying in civil airspace. At the largest event of the unmanned systems industry earlier this month, speakers representing airline pilots and FAA air traffic controllers delivered a go-safely message to UAS proponents eager to gain access to the national airspace system to build the industry.

“We’re certainly not against UAS. In fact, we love technology,” Alaska Airlines Capt. Sean Cassidy, Air Line Pilots Association first vice president, told the Unmanned Systems North America conference in Washington. “Our concern is making sure that with regard to timelines or ‘no-later-than’ dates, we don’t short-shrift safety concerns–the need for technical development to make sure that everything is vetted through the appropriate regulatory agencies. In other words, we want to make sure that before this cake gets pulled out of the oven, it’s fully baked for everyone’s benefit.”

Currently, unmanned aircraft in the U.S. can operate only in restricted airspace or through certificates of authorization (CoA) issued by FAA to public agencies. A company that seeks to operate a UAS as part of a business must obtain a special airworthiness certificate-experimental category (SAC-EC). There are 285 active CoAs and 15 active SAC-ECs, according to the FAA. A proposed rulemaking governing the operation of small UAS–nominally 50 pounds or lighter–is anticipated by December, with a final rule following in mid-2013. In June, the FAA established an aviation rulemaking committee to consider larger unmanned aircraft.

Pressure has been building for years to open wider airspace access for UAS. The military wants access for training purposes, a requirement that is intensifying as units return from Iraq and Afghanistan with their unmanned assets. But integrating robotic aircraft with airline, cargo and general aviation traffic poses substantial technological, regulatory and safety challenges.

“We know they’re coming, and we want to accommodate as much as possible, but safety is big concern,” said Chris Stephenson, terminal technology coordinator with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. “I’ve talked to many people and I get different opinions as to what the volume is going to be, what the increase in traffic is going to be if we fully integrate them and add them to the aircraft that are already out there. Do we need new buildings? Do we need more controllers? That all has to be looked at [and] procedurally there are all kinds of [issues].”