FAA Plans Unmanned ‘Sense and Avoid’ Rule in 2016

 - July 22, 2013, 12:55 PM
AeroVironment is seeking FAA type certification for its hydrogen-powered Global Observer unmanned aircraft. (Photo: AeroVironment)

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration expects to formulate a standard by 2016 that will permit unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to interoperate with manned aircraft using an “electronic means” to see and avoid potential collisions, according to the executive leading the FAA’s effort to introduce UAS into the airspace system.

James Williams, manager of the agency’s UAS integration office, said an aviation rulemaking committee the FAA formed is looking into amending Part 91.113, the federal aviation regulation that prescribes aircraft right-of-way rules, to allow for an electronic sensing system that would enable UAS to steer clear of potential collisions with other aircraft. Another special committee, assembled by standards organization RTCA, will develop the technological requirements for a UAS “sense-and-avoid” system, and will meet for the first time on July 30. Williams spoke at the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) safety forum in Washington, D.C., on July 17.

At present, the FAA limits UAS operations to restricted, or segregated, airspace that is not available to normal air traffic. A private company that seeks to fly an unmanned aircraft in unrestricted airspace must obtain a special airworthiness certificate from the agency; military services and public agencies require a certificate of authorization. In the 2012 FAA reauthorization act, the U.S. Congress mandates the “safe integration” of UAS in the National Airspace System beginning in September 2015.

U.S. military services and government agencies already fly UAS regularly, Williams told the ALPA safety forum, which many airline pilots attend. He cited the Customs and Border Protection agency, which operates Predator B unmanned aircraft in support of anti-terrorism and law-enforcement missions. “How many of you knew that Customs and Border [Protection] is flying its eight airplanes 24 hours a day, seven days a week, along both the northern and southern border, in Class A airspace? Some of you have probably shared the airspace with one of these aircraft,” he said. “They’re being controlled by our en route air traffic controllers every day.”

The FAA has signed an agreement with the National Institute of Justice, the research and development agency of the Department of Justice, to train police departments in operating UAS and to approve their use in local jurisdictions. It has authorized police in Arlington, Texas, which is located near Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, to fly two small unmanned helicopters. “It is a major deal for us to figure out how to authorize them to operate their aircraft safely in the vicinity of Dallas-Fort Worth,” Williams said. “We figured out a way to do it, and they are now operating.”

The FAA signed a cooperative agreement with ConocoPhillips that authorizes the energy company to operate a catapult-launched Boeing ScanEagle UAS from one of its exploratory ships to monitor ice flows. The agency will grant ConocoPhillips commercial certification for the aircraft in the restricted category, Williams said. Last August, UAS manufacturer AeroVironment started the lengthy process of obtaining FAA type certification of its Global Observer hydrogen-powered UAS, which the company is eyeing for telecommunications relay and other applications.