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 Unmanned Aircraft to Soon Share Helicopter Airspace

FAA Funding Bill Includes UAS Acceleration
by Bob Martin
February 13, 2012

DALLAS, TX – In just three months helicopter aircrews across North America will need to be alert for another low altitude airspace user, small unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) operated by public safety agencies. 

Small unmanned systems are already being tested by local public safety departments in very limited areas of civilian airspace today and include both fixed wing and rotorcraft. However, the frequency of their employment is about to radically increase all across North America.

Small UASs weighing less than 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) will be allowed to fly public safety missions, with restrictions, in wide areas of the National Airspace System (NAS) 90 days after the President signs the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, HR 658. Authorizations for much larger UASs will follow over the next three years.

Frustrated by years of delays in FAA progress toward integration of UASs into the NAS, UAS industry leaders convinced Congress to, as part of the 2012 funding act, order the FAA to expedite the process.

Attendees at the Helicopter Association International (HAI) Heli-Expo in Dallas were briefed on the UAS status by Ben Gielow, Government Relations Manager and General Counsel of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).

Gielow pointed out that there will be significant limitations on the employment of small UASs in the near-term.

Flights would be limited to missions by public safety agencies only. They would be daylight only flights in only Class G airspace, at an altitude of no more than 400 feet above the ground, within line of sight of the operator and at least 5 statute miles away from the nearest airport, heliport, seaplane base, spaceport or other location with aviation activities.

Gielow said the UAS industry is facing some perception issues with both the public and the general aviation community. AUVSI bristles at the use of the word “drone”, which Gielow calls an antiquated reference to unmanned aircraft used for target practice.

And then there is the “unmanned” issue.

“There is certainly nothing ‘unmanned’ about them (UAS),” said Gielow. “There’s always an operator or someone that is in control of that system.”

Some seminar attendees voiced concerns about how collision avoidance with manned aircraft will be assured. The initial flights of small UASs will not require transponders or collision avoidance systems. They will depend on the practice of see and avoid.

“Technology is advancing right now for the (UAS) aircraft to be able to sense and avoid other aircraft,” said Gielow. “But that technology is not quite there yet. So it is the (UAS) operator’s responsibility to see and avoid other aircraft.”

A key to future safety according to Gielow is UAS participation in the FAA’s NextGen system and fully utilizing ADS-B.

“When other aircraft are able to see where other aircraft are, that will certainly help the perception of unmanned aircraft because you know where they are,” he said.

“Ultimately, we would like to be able to have the unmanned aircraft be able to sense and avoid other manned aircraft and to make adjustments and do it predictably,” he added. “So that other operators in the NAS have confidence in these systems and they know what is going to happen and if there is a conflict.”

The funding act also requires the FAA to allow flights of larger UASs weighing up to 55 pounds within 27 months. Even larger UASs would be integrated into the NAS no later than September of 2015.

To encourage technology and procedure development, the FAA is given six months to work with DOD and NASA to designate six test ranges across the country.

Gielow says a much-delayed FAA Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for regulations covering commercial, private sector use of small UASs is expected to finally be published this spring with a subsequent public comment period.

“I encourage all of you, as users, to look at document and then comment if you have any thoughts one way or another,” said Gielow.

Final regulations for commercial operation of the less than 55 pound systems are expected to take effect in 2014.

Meanwhile, within one year, special zones in Alaska would allow such UASs to fly 24 hours a day at more than 2,000 feet above the ground and even beyond line of sight with the operator. UASs could fly in these Alaskan areas for both research and commercial purposes.

While DOD is presently the largest user of UASs, AUVSI says there are lots of civilian customers ready to buy and start operating them. Public safety agencies are at the head of the line.

US Customs and Border Protection is already using 8 large Predator UASs to patrol the USA’s international borders and the agency plans to as much as triple that fleet over the next 4 years. USGS and NOAA also employ UASs.

Small law enforcement agencies are trying them out, too. The Mesa County Sheriff’s Department in Colorado already has a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA to operate the small Draganflyer X6 UAS (pictured above) anywhere in the more than 3,000 square miles of the county. About 300 smaller COAs now exist.

Gielow said one of the challenges facing the FAA is devising a certification process for both the UASs and their operators.

“Does the operator need to be a pilot?” he asked. “Does it need to depend on size of the platform?”

Once full integration is allowed in the NAS, Gielow says commercial companies plan to begin using UASs for many tasks including aerial photography, environmental monitoring, filming, tracking wildlife and other purposes.

AUVSI predicts that in the future, large UASs could work 24 hours a day doing big jobs like aerial applications of pesticides in farming areas.

“And it would also be safer potentially,” said Gielow. “Agricultural general aviation is a dangerous job.”

“Once there is access to the airspace,” said Gielow, “you will see a whole new crop of aerospace companies and new tasks that these systems can take on.”

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