Release #: Vol. 84, No. 9
November 01, 2015

From the Hill: ALPA Tells Congress UAS Need Greater Oversight

By John Perkinson, Staff Writer

“Airline pilots’ training and expertise helps ensure safety when we unexpectedly encounter a UAS [unmanned aircraft system], but the FAA numbers show more encounters are happening more frequently,” Capt. Tim Canoll, ALPA’s president, told members of the U.S. House of Representatives Aviation Subcommittee. Canoll, who testified on October 7 at a hearing titled “Ensuring Aviation Safety in the Era of Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” stressed that the proliferation of these remotely piloted aircraft, coupled with the increasing number of near-miss events, demonstrates the accelerating level of risk.

Canoll offered several recent examples including an event in which a UAS passed within 60 to 70 feet of an all-cargo aircraft near San Jose, Calif. “The FAA is making progress, but we need more,” he said. “While work on a final rule regarding small commercial UAS operations is encouraging, the agency must immediately address all UAS operations, including those flown by hobbyists.”

Canoll outlined a four-part action plan to help safely integrate UAS into the U.S. national airspace system.

He called for education, referencing the “Know Before You Fly” campaign, a public initiative and the topic of a recent Association blog. The campaign calls for individuals flying UAS to be educated about FAA guidelines, such as maintaining line of sight, not flying within five miles of an airport, and flying under 400 feet.

Additionally, Canoll said UAS purchasers need to be registered so that law enforcement can identify the owner if a UAS were to encounter a problem.

UAS must be equipped with technologies that help pilots and controllers easily identify them when they’re operating in airspace intended for airliners. UAS must also have technology that can’t be overridden that limits the altitude and geographic areas in which they can operate.

And UAS pilots must understand the penalties of exceeding operational limits and possible malfunctions.

“Given the safety risk highlighted by the FAA’s recent release of pilot reports, ALPA urges Congress to clear up confusion and authorize the the FAA to regulate the UAS operated for recreation and hobby,” said Canoll.

In August, the FAA issued a report about the growing prevalence of UAS in U.S. airspace. The agency noted, “Pilots of a variety of different types of aircraft—including many large, commercial air carriers—reported spotting 16 unmanned aircraft in June of 2014, and 36 the following month. This year, 138 pilots reported seeing drones at altitudes of up to 10,000 feet during the month of June, and another 137 in July.”

In his opening remarks, Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), the Aviation Subcommittee chairman, observed, “Safety is paramount in aviation, and the increased number of suspected sightings raises serious questions. Some of these reports involved airliners and occurred at low altitudes near the nation’s busiest airports.”

Just the day before the hearing, the FAA proposed to fine SkyPan International, Inc. with a $1.9 million civil penalty. The agency reported that the company had conducted 65 missions using UAS over densely populated areas of New York and Chicago from March 2012 to December 2014. Forty-three of these missions were allegedly flown “over highly restricted New York airspace,” according to The Washington Post.

As part of his testimony, FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker told Aviation Subcommittee members that the agency had signed an agreement earlier in the week with CACI International, Inc. to evaluate the company’s UAS sensor-detection system, which, if effective, could be employed at airports. The agreement is part of the FAA’s Pathfinder program announced in May to safely expand unmanned aircraft operations in the United States. However, the FAA continues to face intense pressure after failing to meet a congressionally mandated deadline of Sept. 30, 2015, for integrating UAS into U.S. national airspace.

Airline pilots have reported sightings this year near airports ranging from Newark Liberty International to Seattle–Tacoma International. In addition, the news media has reported on numerous nonairline-related incidents, including a random UAS that landed on the White House lawn last January and a UAS that crashed in seating at the U.S Open in September. UAS have also impeded efforts to fight the recent California wildfires.

Canoll told the Aviation Subcommittee, “ALPA recognizes that UAS can allow us to perform certain tasks more efficiently and safely than conventional aircraft. We also understand the value of advancing America’s competiveness in these technologies.” But Canoll asserted, “That said, ALPA’s overarching concern is one of safety.”

New UAS Task Force to Develop Recommendations by November 20

On October 19, U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Anthony Foxx and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced the creation of a task force to develop recommendations for an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) registration process.

The task force—which ALPA will be a part of—will be composed of 25 to 30 diverse representatives from the UAS and manned aviation industries, the federal government, and other stakeholders. 

The group will develop recommendations by November 20 and advise the DOT on which aircraft should be exempt from registration due to a low safety risk, including toys and certain other small UAS. The task force also will explore options for a streamlined system that would make registration less burdensome for commercial UAS operators.

“ALPA fully supports Secretary Foxx’s decision to create a task force that will recommend procedures and policy for creating a national registration database for all UAS,” said Capt. Tim Canoll, ALPA’s president. “This simple and necessary tactic will not only allow authorities to immediately identify the owner, but it will also drive home the serious nature of operating these UAS.

“The FAA’s task force is certainly a step in the right direction—but we also need timely decisions. There is an anticipated sale of one million UAS during this year’s holiday season. This news comes on the heels of hundreds of FAA reports from pilots on UAS encounters. With all of these safety concerns in mind, the Air Line Pilots Association is ready to engage in discussion with its counterparts and assist this task force in developing the procedures necessary to ensure we maintain the highest levels of safety for our aviation system.”

Next Up

As this issue went to press, Capt. Tim Canoll, ALPA’s president, was scheduled to testify on October 28 before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies regarding unmanned aircraft systems and the steps being taken to successfully integrate this new technology into the U.S. national airspace system.

This article is from the November 2015 issue of Air Line Pilot magazine, the Official Journal of the Air Line Pilots Association, International—a monthly publication for all ALPA members.