UAVs Are Coming…Once the Rules Are Written
With funding now assured under the FY 2012 Reauthorization and Reform Act, the FAA’s four-year UAV project is getting under way. But the overarching goal of achieving access to the NAS is going to require a good deal of effort, particularly on the regulatory side. It looks fairly straightforward, but in fact it can get complex and there’s a distinct possibility that some participants won’t make it by the Sept. 30, 2015 deadline.
It all boils down to the rules that are now being developed. Generally the UAV rules will mirror those for manned aircraft, and pilot licensing won’t change too much. For example, the remote pilot of a UAV and the pilot of a manned aircraft are responsible for the safe operation of their aircraft and therefore need the same knowledge of aviation law, principles of flight, knowledge of their aircraft and its performance, planning and loading, weather, navigation, operational procedures and communications. Pilots must also obtain flight instruction, demonstrate their skill, achieve a level of experience and be licensed. It is also expected that they will have to meet medical standards, although those levels have yet to be determined.
Unique UAS Challenges
But their remote location from the aircraft raises other considerations. First, the pilot’s inability to see things, both near and distant, around the aircraft is an unusual added burden. Simple things like following a taxiway, reading signs and avoiding other objects become a challenge, as does the former natural practice of simply looking at the weather and, near the airport, fitting into the pattern with other aircraft. “Follow the Citation on long final” won’t work any more, hence the need for a licensed outside observer in almost all cases in “line of sight” VMC conditions, which is where most UAV operations are expected to take place in the introductory years of operations in the NAS.
But the major changes will be in the airworthiness regulations. The bottom line in NAS operations is safety, and above a certain size yet to be determined UAVs will be required to meet virtually all current airworthiness requirements, and these will apply to the air vehicle, key components of the remote ground control station and the command and communications link between them. It is for this reason that the new term “unmanned aircraft system” (UAS) has been introduced, replacing UAV. Currently, no civil or military unmanned aircraft fully meets airworthiness standards.
Safety also demands collision-avoidance capabilities. Here, a great deal of work is already under way in military and civil applications, but developers are far from meeting the goal of a universal solution comparable to Tcas, which for now appears to be ruled out due to cost and size considerations. One expert stated recently that we may have to wait for a breakthrough in a completely new and yet unknown technology before the final detect and avoid system (to use the new replacement term for sense and avoid) is developed.
Technical specialists from the major ICAO nations are working on these and many other issues within the ICAO UAS Study Group, along with industry experts from organizations such as the U.S. RTCA, Europe’s Eurocae and similar bodies. Last year, ICAO published its Circular 328–Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)–which provides a comprehensive examination of virtually every issue that confronts the UAS community in its aim eventually to share the skies. The circular doesn’t provide ICAO Standards or Recommended Practices, but instead outlines the detailed issues that introduction faces.