Last week the FAA released what it is calling its roadmap to integrate unmanned aerial systems into the national airspace system. In case you missed it, a UAS is what most of us call a drone, and the NAS is, well, essentially all of the airspace over the U.S.
The FAA is really acting under orders from Congress which has told the FAA to figure out how drones can be put to work quickly because so many businesses and government agencies want to use them. The Congressional deadline for the FAA to get drones flying is 2015.
The FAA “roadmap” to drone integration is more than 70 pages long and isn’t really much of a map of how to safely integrate drones but is a lengthy list of how many issues must be resolved. I actually feel sorry for the FAA. The task is nearly impossible, and the timeline is totally unrealistic.
The requirement is for the FAA to figure out how unmanned aircraft can share the same airspace with conventional aircraft without any degradation of safety to people in the air, or on the ground. And not a single rule or procedure is in place yet that achieves that goal.
As pilots our immediate concern is that the drone will be flying in the same airspace we use but the person in control of the drone is on the ground and potentially thousands of miles away. In some scenarios nobody may directly control the drone as many missions would be operating on a preprogrammed flight path. Avoiding a collision with the thing is our number one concern.
The FAA can’t just abandon the fundamental “see and avoid” collision rules we use without crushing the capacity of the airspace system. Visual approaches, and thus visual separation, are what make the VFR system possible, and are what add enormous capacity to the IFR system at busy airports on most days. When weather conditions keep pilots from flying visual approaches the capacity of an airport is cut by half or maybe even two thirds so if visual approaches were never possible the system would collapse.
To satisfy our number one priority as pilots the drones must have a “sense and avoid” system that is at least equal to the visual separation standards we conventional pilots use. Electronic collision avoidance equipment is already very good, but good enough to separate ourselves from other aircraft to fly “visual” approaches to a busy airport? Or for drones to operate in dense Class B airspace? I don’t think so.
What really prevents collisions in the airspace system more than see and avoid are procedures and ATC clearances. To get the most airplanes in and out of busy airports we all pretty much get in line so we know where we are going, and where the guy nearby is also headed. And controllers keep order. Think of the Fisk Arrival into Oshkosh and you get the picture.
Will drones need to fly on a clearance like anybody else under IFR or in regulated airspace? If so, that would detract a lot from their usefulness in flying to where whatever the surveillance or other task might be.
But there are even more fundamental issues with drones that must be resolved before they can equal the safety standard we have now. For example, what are the standards for structure, performance, flight path predictability and other issues that will help keep drones from hitting the ground and endangering the public? There are none yet.
Flying a drone over the prairie or some desolate border region is one thing, but many people are anxious to fly drones over the most densely populated parts of the country because that’s where many observation opportunities are. That means drones will be flying over our biggest cities and near our busiest airline airports. To be useful drones must be allowed into airspace that is off limits to student pilots or sport pilots. How much risk to people and property on the ground is acceptable and equal to our current risk level? Nobody knows.
There are no standards for drone pilots. What level of training and testing is necessary to maintain safety? What is a reasonable reliability standard for the communications link between the drone and its pilot? What happens if that link is lost? The drone can be programmed to fly autonomously, but where does it land? At an airport? An open field? Who knows?
Drone technology has put us at one of those points where what is possible bumps up against what is practical and acceptable. It’s obvious that drones are capable of flying just about any mission someone can think of, but will those missions maintain the current level of safety in the airspace system?
The FAA’s task in drone integration has been made even more difficult by the unprecedented safety improvements of airlines in the U.S. Passenger airline accidents have become so rare that the loss of one regional turboprop more than four years ago, tragic as it was, now has the power to incite Congressional demands for a major overhaul of airline pilot qualification and training. The safety bar has been set so unimaginably high and drones will have to fly with us without adding even the slightest new level of risk. The public and Congress will go crazy after the first drone wipes out airline passengers or a family on the ground.
The FAA roadmap discusses all of these issues and more. What it doesn’t offer are solutions, just the need for study and testing. The one enormous issue the FAA throws back to Congress is the loss of privacy drones can create. The FAA’s mission is to figure out how drones can share our airspace without adding any additional risk. The potential for mischief from drone spying is so enormous that new laws, and probably years worth of court cases, will be needed to erect protections that are acceptable.
Like I said, I feel sorry for the FAA having been handed this hot potato where the FAA can’t win but sure can lose.