Features

April 2015 Issue




Highlights Of The FAA’s Proposal

Small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) must weigh less than 55 lbs. (25 kg). Maximum airspeed of 100 mph (87 knots), maximum altitude of 500 feet agl. Minimum weather visibility of three miles from control station.

ADS-B For Small Drones?

Putting ADS-B aboard small drones is not only possible, it’s already out there in limited volume. Sagetech Corp., which makes the Clarity and Clarity SV ADS-B portable receivers, has a line of micro transponders and ADS-B equipment. And we do mean micro. These devices are the size of a business card and about 0.7-inch thick. They weigh 100 grams, less antenna. That’s about the weight of a GoPro camera.

For More Information...

The FAA’s NPRM on small UAS is formally open for public comment until at least April 24, 2015. It was published in the Federal Register of February 23, 2015, and is available online by going to www.regulations.gov and entering “FAA–2015–0150” in the search window.

We would strongly suggest all interested parties read and understand the 48-page document before commenting.

Drone FARs

The adverse impact on safety from the FAA’s proposed rule on small unmanned aircraft systems is low, but it does exist.

The technology you have in your glass panel, smartphone and the tablet you use in the cockpit? It turns out the same hardware and software putting a blue dot on a moving map—and displaying an accurate artificial horizon—also can be used to operate a small, airborne robot: a drone. Formally known as an unmanned aircraft system, UAS, they’ve grown in sophistication and utility to the point Congress in 2012 told the FAA to come up with a framework integrating them into the national airspace system.

In response, the FAA in February published its vision of how it all should work, stopping short of requiring elaborate training or certification standards, and proposing a basic set of operating rules. One way to look at the proposed rule is that it potentially allows small UAS (sUAS), those weighing up to 55 pounds (25 kilograms) to share the sky with aircraft carrying lots of healthy pink bodies. Airspace sharing would be rare, subject to ATC jurisdiction and designed to minimize—but not eliminate—the risk of collision with manned aircraft.

The Proposal

The FAA always has held commercial aircraft operations to a higher standard, strictly regulating how a private pilot may share flying expenses among friends or participate in formal ride-sharing programs, for example. As one result, there simply aren’t that many regulations applying to recreational aviation activities compared to those addressing carriage of persons or property for hire. Current FAA rules basically exempt recreational UAS—model airplanes—from the sort of operating requirements the agency’s new proposal would implement.

The agency’s proposed rules on non-recreational operation of small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) breaks some new ground. It tries to apply some manned-aircraft rules to the machines and their operators, even as it adopts those proven features of model airplane rules. The proposal forgoes the opportunity to certify sUAS types and seeks only minimal operator certification, but also would require aircraft registration and displaying an N-number. The sidebar on the opposite page highlights some of the proposed rule’s provisions.

The FAA’s proposal is just that: a starting point for discussion. The agency set April 24, 2015, as a deadline for comments from the public and industry; we wouldn’t be surprised if it’s extended. Since it’s taken the FAA some three years to get this far down the path of UAS regulation, it’s not likely a consensus will be reached and a final rule published until, maybe, the end of 2016. Don’t hold your breath.

In the meantime, the status quo remains: Basically, non-recreational use of sUAS isn’t legal unless explicitly exempted by the FAA. Operators needing an exemption would be smart to use the NPRM as a template when seeking it.

Avoiding Mid-Airs

Noting the see-and-avoid concept is a “fundamental principle” of collision avoidance in the national airspace system, the FAA aptly states the concern many pilots have about mid-air collisions with sUAS: “whether the person operating the small unmanned aircraft, who would be physically separated from that aircraft during flight, would have the ability to see manned aircraft in the air in time to prevent a mid-air collision.” The challenge, according to the agency, is to “ensure that the person operating the small unmanned aircraft is able to see and avoid other aircraft.”

As highlighted above, an sUAS operator must maintain unaided visual contact with it, and basic VFR visibility minimums are required. Is that going to be sufficient? What about if the operator loses what the FAA calls “positive control” of sUAS? The agency “proposes to mitigate the risk associated with loss of aircraft control by confining small unmanned aircraft to a limited area of operation.” It envisions multiple observers positioned at the “outer bounds of the horizontal circle created by the visual line-of-sight requirement.” The proposal seeks comment on a flight-termination capability for when the operator loses contact with the sUAS and it motors off on its own, but the FAA didn’t suggest actions the operator or the observers are supposed to take if control is lost. Perhaps each observer should be armed with a shotgun?

Reaction

While the FAA’s small UAS NPRM drew positive if subdued reaction from trade and member groups we spoke to, the same can’t be said for some individual pilots and aircraft owners. Many are rightly asking what data the FAA used to determine that sUAS represent no significant safety risk for manned aircraft. So did we, so we asked, or at least our sister publication, AVweb.com did.

The FAA’s UAS branch replied that it relied on the 2009 report of the Small UAS Aviation Rulemaking Committee for guidance. The ARC described what it called a “layered approach” to mitigating risk and it offered this: “Many of the committee’s recommendations were made based on experience with existing aviation operations and regulations and perceptions of risk.”

Perceptions are one thing, but did anyone put any numbers on this with actual statistical risk analysis? Not exactly. At least no one in the manned aviation community seems to have such data. More on that in a moment.

The Air Line Pilots Association seems most alarmed about the UAS collision risk and is urging the FAA to require extensive training and regulation of operators. But they declined comment on what risk analysis they used to reach this conclusion and whether it should be applied to sUAS. AOPA, EAA and HAI generally lauded the NPRM as a good first step. Any numerical risk analysis there? Nope. Surely the insurance companies have? No again, at least for the two we spoke to.