2011 News

Bookmark and Share

Unmanned Aircraft: Will Deployment Impact Business Aviation?

FAA Taking a Deliberate Approach, Citing Technology Limitations

September 12, 2011

There is little doubt that a future in which unmanned vehicles share the open skies with manned aircraft is on the horizon. Whether it's likely to occur soon – or not soon enough – is a matter open for debate, however, and depends on whom you ask.

By the end of this year, the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to issue its proposed rule governing a “roadmap” for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) deployment of in the National Airspace System, or NAS. This action comes after the April 2008 formation of an Aviation Rulemaking Committee tasked with examining the potential logistical and safety issues involved with operating manned and unmanned aircraft in the same airspace.

A preliminary document by the FAA targets limited deployment of autonomous vehicles to begin no sooner than 2015. “The introduction of UASs to the NAS is challenging for the FAA and the aviation community,” the agency notes, adding “[t]he design of many UASs makes them difficult to see, and adequate ‘detect, sense and avoid’ technology is years away.”

And therein lays the potential problem, as groups with vested interests in more-immediate deployment of UAS technologies attempt to speed up that timeline. "There is tremendous economic and political pressure on the FAA by its sister agency, the Department of Defense, to speed the deployment of UASs into national airspace," says Bob Lamond, director, air traffic services & infrastructure for the National Business Aviation Association.

Lamond adds that, if those efforts are successful and lead to premature introduction of UASs in to the NAS, "there may be challenges to the FAA on implementing those changes."

The greatest challenge lies in how to ensure that unmanned aircraft are ready to safely navigate the skies outside the controlled environment of a restricted test area, or over a military base. As the FAA notes, the technology to enable unmanned aircraft to identify conflicting traffic, and take appropriate and safe corrective action, is still in development. Given this important limitation, the agency has taken a deliberate approach in moving forward with UAS deployment.

Sarah Wolf, NBAA program specialist, operations, has been involved with this process for five years as a member of several planning committees tasked with developing a safe and workable UAS deployment schedule. She believes the FAA’s measured approach to the issue is the right one, though she adds, “it may appear to others as overly cautious… A lot of groups, especially UAS manufacturers, want the agency to move faster.

"But sense-and-avoid technology is just part of the picture," she adds. "To ensure the safety of general aviation pilots who will share the airspace with these systems, UAS deployment has to consider many issues including: airframe airworthiness; ATC communications; UAS pilot requirements and duty time; verbal and non-verbal interaction between UASs and manned aircraft; and emergency scenarios."

Lamond also believes the FAA “is being appropriately cautious” in moving forward with wider deployment of unmanned vehicles. "They are listening carefully to the traditional operator base,” he adds, “and listening to our concerns."

A recent accident involving two military aircraft cast a spotlight on the potential risks involved. In mid-August, an RQ-7 Shadow unmanned surveillance aircraft collided with a C-130 Hercules during a mission over Afghanistan. The reconnaissance drone, which sports a 14-foot wingspan, struck the left wing of the turboprop transport, reportedly rupturing a fuel tank but otherwise causing little damage. The Hercules made a safe emergency landing; the unmanned aircraft was destroyed.