Airline Pilots Assured of Safe Introduction of UAS

 - August 13, 2012, 1:40 PM
The Boeing Insitu ScanEagle unmanned aircraft has an mtow of 44 pounds and service ceiling of 19,500 feet. (Photo: Boeing)

Industry and government executives involved in the development and regulation of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) offered airline pilots assurances that air vehicles piloted from the ground will be introduced safely and incrementally to the U.S. national airspace system (NAS). “We’re doing this in an organized and structured fashion,” said Richard Prosek, manager of flight technologies and procedures in the FAA’s UAS Integration Office.

Prosek served on a panel that focused on the impending arrival of unmanned aircraft in the NAS at the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) Air Safety Forum in Washington, D.C., on August 9. The discussion came as the FAA nears a decision on the locations of six test ranges for UASs as required by congressional legislation. The agency also expects to issue a proposed rule on operating small UASs of about 55 pounds or less by year-end. UASs currently can fly only in segregated airspace or with a certificate of authorization or special airworthiness certificate from the FAA.

In addition to requiring the establishment of six test ranges, the FAA reauthorization bill signed into law in February sets a deadline for the integration of unmanned aircraft in the NAS “as soon as practicable, but not later than September 30, 2015.” Prosek sought to clarify the bill language, which he said the media often misrepresents. “The language does not say full integration of UASs into the NAS by that date. It says safe integration,” he said.

Paul McDuffee, associate vice president of government relations and strategy with Boeing’s Insitu subsidiary, a manufacturer of UASs for the military and government agencies, backed Prosek’s comments. “In spite of our name, unmanned aircraft systems are not truly unmanned,” he said. “There is a sizeable human footprint associated with the operation of vehicles of all different sizes, shapes and capabilities. We obviously have pilots, we have ground support individuals, maintainers, trainers, payload operators and those who actually mine the data that these systems collect.”

McDuffee noted that the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the trade group that represents the UAS industry, has published a “Code of Conduct” that emphasizes safety, professionalism and “respect” for privacy concerns. “This is going to be an incremental process,” he said of introducing unmanned aircraft. “We’re going to start operating systems where it makes sense to operate them. We’re not going to push the envelope beyond our capabilities.”

ALPA has taken the position that “persons controlling the unmanned aircraft be pilots, not operators,” said American Eagle Capt. Bill de Groh, who chairs the association’s design and operations group. “Our view is that to be granted equal access to the NAS, the pilot-in-command must be trained and licensed to do so,” he emphasized.