AIN Blog: Unmanned Aircraft Coming to Airspace Near You

 - February 6, 2012, 9:24 PM
Model of Hughes H-1 Racer
Aero Telemetry's 1/2-scale Hughes H-1 Racer

Get ready for some serious angst. The FAA reauthorization just passed by the U.S. House and Senate includes specific direction to the FAA regarding unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Elements of the legislation include a Sept. 30, 2015 deadline for integration of UAS into the national airspace. The FAA promises to release a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) covering unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) sometime within the next few months (although it was supposed to be released by the end of last year).

What’s clear is that pretty soon, we’ll all be sharing airspace with all manner of flying objects, from tiny eyes-in-the-sky watching our every move to big UAS that can stay up for extended periods and carry who knows what. Obviously, it is every pilot’s hope that these unmanned aircraft will also carry some kind of technology that keeps them from running into or being run into by regular manned aircraft.

This NPRM is expected to encompass the model aircraft industry as well, and there is plenty of worry amongst the modeling crowd about how regulation will affect what thus far has been a wonderfully creative, robust and popular activity. For the model crowd, the legislation exempts model aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds from regulation as long as the model “follows a set of community-based safety standards.” The AMA is working on a set of standards and is consulting with the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Program Office on these.

To learn more about what’s coming, I attended a panel session at the recent Academy of Aeronautics Expo in Ontario, Calif. On the panel were two FAA people, AMA president Bob Brown and Rich Hanson, AMA’s government relations and regulatory affairs representative.

It was disappointing, first of all, to see that the FAA chose to send two staffers without much influence to what is the AMA’s big convention. The two—Lynn Spencer and James Sizemore from the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Program Office—said they have little to do with the upcoming NPRM and that their role was simply to help the AMA draft a set of standards that will be applicable to the model aircraft industry as an alternative to whatever regulations become law. Neither FAAer could or would reveal anything about what the NPRM will propose.

A lot of time was spent discussing why the FAA feels compelled to regulate UAS and model aircraft. There are some amazingly complex and large quarter- and half-scale models being built and flown, and these are UAS by most definitions. And the FAA is having to deal with numerous requests by various government agencies and private firms that want to use UAS for aerial work. Some of these UAS are going to fly in public airspace where they may fly close to regular aircraft, so some sort of regulation is clearly needed, not to mention technological methods of keeping them from causing midairs.

When asked how many people have been injured or killed by model aircraft, however, none of the panelists could cite any numbers. So the impetus to regulate model aircraft seems questionable. “We have been told repeatedly that this is solely an issue of safety and not one of national security concerns,” said AMA president Brown. “We believe aeromodeling has the most impeccable safety record in all aeronautics. Apparently that is not enough, according to the FAA.”