Safe Integration of Unmanned Aircraft Systems

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), aka remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) or the popular term “drones,” are flown autonomously and/or without a pilot on board the aircraft. UAS will eventually be integrated into the national airspace system (NAS), interacting with other aircraft in a manner similar to pilot-on-board aircraft today. This integration must not introduce any risk that could negatively impact the airline industry safety record.

The technology that supports these autonomous or remotely piloted operations is developing rapidly, and the number of commercial uses envisioned or already being employed is similarly expanding. Regulators, both in the United States and abroad, are struggling to keep pace. But they must not allow pressure to rapidly integrate UAS into the NAS to rush a process that must be solely focused on safety. Safety and technology standards must be in place before a UAS can occupy the same airspace as manned aircraft or operate in areas where it might inadvertently stray into airspace occupied by airliners. If UAS share our airspace, airline pilots must be able to see them on cockpit displays, and air traffic controllers need to see them on their displays to safely separate air traffic. Further, the UAS must be equipped with active collision-avoidance technology.

If the UAS is not intended to be operated in the same airspace as airliners, then those restrictions must be programmed into the UAS in a way that cannot be overridden. Licensed pilots with experience operating in the NAS have a better understanding of and ability to plan for contingencies involving weather, system malfunctions, and operations around other aircraft or near critical infrastructures such as airports. They understand the role and mission of ATC and know where to go for help should an unforeseen circumstance arise.
The FAA has already produced rules to integrate small UAS (under 55 pounds) into our airspace system. These vehicles must operate below 500 feet above the surface, be flown within sight of the pilot, cannot be flown at night, and cannot be flown within five miles of an airport. 

FAA has slated rulemaking to govern large (over 55 pounds) UAS and, in the distant future, potential rules governing autonomously operated aircraft. For all these rulemakings, it is essential that the FAA hold these new entrants to the same standards as existing commercial aircraft operations, both technical and operational.

Action

  • FAA should promulgate regulations to ensure the appropriate oversight and regulation of recreational or “hobby” UAS.
  • Any operator of small or large UAS used in commercial service should be subject to the same operation approval and oversight as a commercial airline.
  • If a UAS has the capability to or is intended to operate in the airspace shared by air carrier aircraft, then it must
    • Be designed to the same standards as air carrier aircraft,
    • Be equipped with the same “safety enhancing equipment” as air carrier aircraft, including an active collision-avoidance system, and 
    • Have the technology to allow it to be clearly shown on pilot and controller displays.
  • Altitude-limiting and geographic-avoidance features must be included if the aircraft is not intended to operate in airspace occupied by pilot-on-board aircraft.
  • Lost link must be addressed in the rulemaking procedures to ensure UAS are capable of safely landing without endangering other aircraft or persons on the ground though features such as “land immediately” or “return to home.”
  • Any person(s) in direct control of a UAS must be limited to the control of a single aircraft.

Related:

ALPA Hails Congressional Agreement on Safety-Centered FAA Reauthorization (9/25/2018)

ALPA comments to the U.S. House of Representative Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on the safe integration of UAS into the national airspace system (4/4/2017)