AIN Blog: Torqued: Manned and Unmanned Aircraft: Sharing the Skies

 - March 1, 2014, 1:25 AM

I have to admit that my interest in drones–or unmanned aircraft systems, as the FAA prefers to call them–has been re-energized by my students at Vaughn College of Aeronautics. Sure, like most aviation enthusiasts, I’m interested in anything that flies and have been a model airplane fan from childhood. But I had not been reading up quite as closely on the civilian drone industry since a project more than five years ago with a major cargo company languished when the FAA refused to consider approving unmanned aerial vehicles for package transport. Sorry, Amazon, you were far from the first with the idea

But then my students started bringing up the subject in my Current Topics in Aviation course, one of the courses I co-teach at Vaughn, and I found myself delving deeper into the issues along with my class.

Clearly drones are a source of fascination for my students, most of whom want to become commercial pilots or air traffic controllers. Drones today are obviously not the model aircraft of yesteryear. They can have the wingspan of an airliner or be smaller than some birds. They can be operated by smartphones at altitudes unimaginable for model aircraft. So it’s easy to understand students’ fascination with these new aircraft. But these young people also see future careers in drones and are eager to be in on the ground floor as the commercial opportunities in every area of drone operation and maintenance are expected to boom. So as more and more students were talking and writing about drones and their integration into the airspace, I also began focusing more attention on how these unmanned vehicles are going to be safely integrated into the skies.

Not unexpectedly, there seems to be a growing disconnect between the need for some type of regulation of UAS (other than model aircraft, which have their own special rule allowing them to operate within certain specified parameters) and the booming underground economy in drones, including their commercial use, which is basically prohibited by the FAA. While the FAA is studying how to integrate drones into the airspace–recently announcing the selection of six test sites–and has authorized limited public use (that is, governmental use) of drones, it seems any type of drone rulemaking is still in the distant future.

Even the Congressional deadlines imposed by the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 might prove overly optimistic. As it stands, the law requires the FAA to produce a comprehensive plan for the integration of UAS into the national airspace system (NAS) “as soon as practicable but not later than Sept. 30, 2015” and then, 18 months after that, promulgation of final rules for the integration of small aircraft systems into the NAS. Although the act required the FAA to determine whether any UAS could be fast-tracked into the NAS, I am not aware of any that have been.

According to the FAA’s Fact Sheet on Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) issued on January 6, the agency is busy at work on a proposed rule. But with no proposed rule published, there are still many regulatory hurdles–such as allowing for public comment and preparing responses to public comment–before any rules become final. Controversial rules take years–sometimes decades–to be implemented. And it’s likely that rulemaking–even for small drones (defined by statute as those weighing less than 55 pounds)–will be controversial as the FAA attempts to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system safely and efficiently. Many of the usual aviation stakeholders will have an interest in how these aerial vehicles share the skies, but so will privacy advocates and environmentalists. Not to mention the potential security implications of even miniature drones capable of carrying small but deadly payloads flying around.

Authorized or Not, Drones Take To the Skies

But while the FAA is studying and drafting proposed rules, the underground drone economy is flourishing and coming out into the mainstream in many private and commercial ventures. According to a recent USA Today article, “Underground Drone Economy Takes Flight,” drones are being used commercially in such activities as professional photography, farming (drones are used to check on crops) and search-and-rescue operations by non-public entities. According to the article, one drone manufacturer, 3D Robotics, has already sold tens of thousands of drones. 

Even though the FAA does not sanction commercial drone operation, some mainstream news media outlets are featuring articles on commercial drone uses as though they were legal. Articles have featured real-estate agents using drones to film high-end properties. Whereas technical reviews of these drones used to appear on specialized websites, those reviews are now coming out in mainstream publications. The New York Times recently featured a rave review of a camera-carrying drone that can fly far out of an operator’s line of sight, to an altitude of more than 1,000 feet. At $1,200, this four-bladed flying machine is easily within the reach of many professional photographers and quite a few hobbyists, many of whom likely are not aware of the legal limitations on operating these machines.

As sales grow and operations proliferate, the dangers posed by drones of any size will also rise. At the current rate of growth, it’s not hard to imagine the skies abuzz with drones in the time it takes the FAA to complete its rulemaking process. And that is not a safe situation for either people on the ground or airplanes sharing the skies.  GA in particular may be affected if drone operations are moved into less densely populated and rural areas.