NBAA2014 – Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition

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FAA, Industry Panelists Discuss Future for Unmanned Aircraft Systems

Oct. 22, 2014

While commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) is currently prohibited in U.S. airspace, the FAA is working on rules to govern their safe and legal flight. In a standing-room-only session at NBAA’s Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (NBAA2014), experts representing the FAA and UAS industry discussed the steps needed to make that happen.

“In the 2012 FAA reauthorization bill, Congress mandated the FAA integrate UAS into the National Airspace System by 2015,” explained moderator Marc Warren, senior counsel with Crowell & Moring LLC. “In the interim, under Section 333, Congress authorized the FAA to grant exemptions to certain UAS while all the rulemakings are being done.”

To date, the FAA has received 91 requests for exemptions under Section 333, and has granted seven of those, for UAS used in movie production.

“We’ve also issued emergency certificates of authorization for search and rescue in several regions,” said Dean Griffith, an attorney for the Operations Law Branch of the FAA Chief Counsel’s office.

Griffith reported the FAA is finalizing a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) for small UAS (weighing less than 55 pounds). The FAA does not regulate model aircraft flown for hobby use, but will start on its “UAS Roadmap” with regulations for the commercial use of small UAS.

“Where we are now is moving from the accommodation phase of the UAS roadmap to the integration phase,” said Griffith on the FAA’s progress. The small UAS NPRM should be issued by the end of 2014.

Technological Challenges for UAS

As the panelists acknowledged, many in the UAS industry are frustrated the rulemaking process is going slowly.

“Our international partners have been using UAS for decades now,” said Mario Mairena, senior government relations manager at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “Just in crop-dusting and precision agriculture, Japan has been using UAS for over 20 years.”

However, the FAA is moving slowly on purpose, because of the technological and operational complexities of integrating UAS into the NAS safely, “recognizing there are a lot of other users in that airspace already,” explained David Hamrick, senior technical advisor of MITRE’s FAA research center.

Hamrick listed four outstanding technical challenges for UAS:

  • Control communications link: “If that link isn’t available, if it doesn’t have high integrity, if it’s easily jammed or spoofed, you’re in big trouble,” said Hamrick. “You lose connection to your aircraft.”
  • Navigation: GPS and WAAS provide perfect location, but are low-powered signals that might be blocked by obstacles.
  • Surveillance: “A lot of these aircraft are very small, so they’re hard to pick up on radar,” Hamrick explained.
  • Air traffic management: Most UAS trajectories are not point-to-point like flight plans for manned aircraft. UAS often loiter, stay stationary at high altitude or fly circuits of agriculture fields. Today’s air traffic management system is not designed to handle those flight plans.

As the industry develops solutions for these challenges, and the FAA puts rules in place, the panelists predicted the UAS would soon grow exponentially.

“Once we enable the UAS marketplace,” said Hamrick, “the innovation will just blossom.”

Related Links

FAA Grants Exemptions to Six UAS Operators for Aerial Filming

Sixth and Final UAS Test Program Now Operational

As FAA Plans Initial Integration of UAS, NBAA Closely Monitors, Coordinates with Government