UAVs ‘Next Great Step’ in Aviation

 - September 20, 2006, 5:35 AM

Testifying before the House aviation subcommittee on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), FAA associate administrator for aviation safety Nick Sabatini called UAVs “the next great step forward in the evolution of aviation.” But he warned they must have numerous redundancies in case of loss of link and system failures.

As AOPA executive vice president of government affairs Andy Cebula told the members of Congress, “Neither accidents between UAVs and manned aircraft nor the implementation of flight restrictions are acceptable.” He added that AOPA members overwhelmingly favored certifying UAVs to the same safety requirements–including the ability to safely detect and avoid other aircraft–as manned aircraft.

Sabatini said that more and more government agencies want to use UAVs, which can range in size from a 12-ounce hand-launched model to the size of a Boeing 737. They also encompass a broad span of altitude and endurance capabilities.

In addition to the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, the Department of the Interior, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and state and local governments are all interested in increasing their use of UAVs for a range of purposes.

The certification of UAVs for use by government agencies in the National Airspace System (NAS) is considered a public aircraft operation, the oversight for which falls outside the scope of the FAA.

“These public operations are, however, required to be in compliance with certain federal aviation regulations administered by the FAA,” Sabatini told the subcommittee, “and the FAA is and must be involved to ensure that the operation of these aircraft does not compromise the safety of the NAS. The FAA’s current role is to ensure that [UAVs] do no harm to other operators in the NAS and, to the maximum extent possible, the public on the ground.”

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, said that the FAA has worked with the Defense Department, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and other government agencies to allow limited use of UAVs in the NAS. The FAA has issued certificates of authority (COA) and created TFRs to allow “public” or “governmental” operations in the NAS, as well as experimental airworthiness certificates to allow limited commercial operations in the NAS.

In January, the FAA issued a 300-nm-long TFR along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona and New Mexico to prevent CBP unmanned surveillance UAVs from colliding with other civilian aircraft. Although the length of the TFR was later reduced, it remains 17 nm wide in most places and operates between 12,000 and 14,000 feet from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. daily. It is scheduled to be in effect until at least December 31.

“TFRs are not a workable long-term solution,” said Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), a private pilot. Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.), also a GA pilot, became aware of the need for a long-term solution after a local sheriff’s department announced its intent to use a UAV for law-enforcement activities.

When the FAA issues a COA, it attempts to ensure that the UAV has a level of safety equivalent to that of a manned aircraft. “Usually, this entails making sure that the [UAV] does not operate in a populated area and that the aircraft is observed, either by someone in a manned aircraft or someone on the ground,” Sabatini testified.

In the past two years, the FAA has issued more than 50 COAs, he added. With the steadily expanding purposes for which UAVs are used and the eventual stateside redeployment of large numbers of UAVs from the Middle East, the FAA expects to issue a record number of COAs this year.

The FAA carved out the TFR along the Mexican border to facilitate DHS UAV operations in the interest of national security and because ground-level observation was not possible.

Sabatini admitted that the FAA “had not anticipated this kind of growth so early,” when Mica asked if his agency needed more resources to address the requests to operate UAVs in support of DOD and DHS activities.

“We request the subcommittee to press the FAA for expeditious action on UAV regulations,” Cebula said.