Acting under orders from Congress the FAA is speeding up its process to allow unmanned aircraft to fly in the national air space system. So, at least some of us will be sharing the air with unpiloted aircraft sooner than later.
First question—what to call these things? The term RP V for remotely pilot vehicle hung around for years. More recently the term UAV for unmanned aerial vehicle became common. More recently still the FAA favors the term UAS for unmanned aircraft systems. Let’s skip the acronyms and call them drones.
Drones have captured the public imagination over the past several years because the military has been using them to fire missiles at suspected terrorists with an apparently high degree of precision. Of course, the military doesn’t brag about the misses, but there have been enough direct hits to talk about that drones—particularly the large Predator— seem like magic to the public watching the nightly news on TV.
Dozens and dozens of companies are now in the drone manufacturing business creating all kinds of aerial vehicles from softball sized helicopters to enormous jet aircraft that can fly above 50,000 feet.
Mix public fascination with drones and lobbyists from drone makers together and Congress can’t possibly resist. So language in the FAA funding bill requires the FAA to devise ways to quickly integrate drones into the airspace.
Since drones don’t fit into the airspace in any conventional way the FAA is issuing waivers for their operation. The waiver process is certainly not new and is used for all kinds of flying activity such as air shows that don’t fit neatly into the normal rules. The initial drone operating waivers will go to police and public safety organizations and then the FAA will begin allowing drones to fly for commercial purposes such as pipeline patrol, mapping, photography and all sorts of observation.
At first glance, this sounds ominous to me as a pilot. Yes, I have a traffic alerting system that I trust to “see” the transponder on a drone. And before drones are turned loose in general airspace they too will have traffic detection and avoidance systems. But still, the drone pilot will be on the ground, or maybe there will not even be a pilot but a preprogrammed computer onboard to direct the flight path.
However, those concerns are still quite far into the future. The waivers the FAA is proposing to issue in the shorter term will restrict drone flights to altitudes below 400 feet agl, away from airports, and the drone must remain within sight of the operator on the ground. Initially the drone weight will be limited to 4.4 pounds, about two kilos. Once a drone operator demonstrates safety and competency in actual use, the size of the drone may be allowed to increase to 25 pounds.
The waivers the FAA is talking about issuing now, in the short term, are really not much different from radio controlled model airplanes. Some RC models are certainly heavier than 4.4 pounds, and some are very fast, even jet powered. But the model must remain within sight of its pilot on the ground, and must remain at low altitudes and away from airports and any other area where conventional airplanes are likely to fly.
Are the new FAA policies to streamline issuance of waivers for drone flight a worry? Not for me. At least not yet. There is nothing in the recent announcement that makes a drone any more threatening than an RC model airplane. But when Congress starts to pressure the FAA to change long standing air space operating policies, now that’s a reason to at least pay attention, and maybe even worry.