Although unmanned aircraft (UA) are still largely confined to experimental uses in unpopulated areas of the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is preparing for the day when UA will share the National Airspace System (NAS) with commercial flights. But that date still appears to be some years away.
FAA's public-private advisory body, RTCA Inc., created Special Committee (SC) 203 in October 2004 to tackle the arduous job of developing UA standards. Specifically, FAA tasked SC-203 with developing standards for UA in two operational areas that pose the greatest safety concerns: 1) detect, sense and avoid; and 2) command, control and communications. These new standards will allow manufacturers to develop the new technology for these craft.
As Nicholas Sabatini, FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety, told the House Aviation Subcommittee at the end of March, this as-yet-to-be- developed technology is the "missing link" that "prevents these aircraft from getting unrestricted access to the NAS.
Accomplishing the necessary modeling and simulation just to develop standards could take another 4-5 years, agency staff tells Air Safety Week.
While FAA has asked the SC-203 to deliver "something" by December 2007, developing the standards is proving to be far more difficult than what was originally thought, says SC 203 Co-Chairman Randy Kenagy, who also is the senior director of advanced technology for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (ALPA).
Before even trying to figure out how make a detect-and-avoid system work, committee members had to start on some basics -- like describing and documenting what an unmanned aircraft is, and doing the same for their various aircraft systems, Kenagy tells Air Safety Week.
Also, the preferred term at this juncture is not simply "unmanned aircraft," Kenagy explains, but "unmanned aircraft systems" (UAS), because there's so much more than just the aircraft, such as all the ground-based operations. Then again, the committee's job isn't made any easier by the fact that a UA can be as big as a Boeing 737 or so small that it fits into the palm of your hand.
But most of today's operating UAs -- aside from hobbyists' model airplanes -- are deployed by U.S. government agencies and fall somewhere in the middle of those two size extremes. A typical craft is the Predator-B, built by General Atomics, which is roughly the size of a Beechcraft King Air. The Predator-B weighs 10,000 lbs, flies up to a ceiling of about 40,000 ft., and has an average speed of about 200 knots or less.
In the past two years, FAA has issued more than 50 certificates of authorization (COAs) to other government agencies to operate these craft. Sabatini testified that the agency expects a "record number" of new COAs this year.
UAs certainly have become a target of "robust funding," says market analyst Darren Corbiere with Frost and Sullivan. While Congress is starting to get interested in their potential in civil aviation, UAs already "are a very good answer to many of the questions that have arisen about intelligence." Thus many UAs operate at the behest of the Department of Defense for applications in Iraq and other overseas locations, and for other agencies with related interests in domestic surveillance and reconnaissance, such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The list of federal agencies also includes those with non-defense and non-security mandates, such as the Department of the Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as a range of local government agencies, Sabatini says.
"You name it, it's being thought of," an FAA spokesman tells Air Safety Week. "Right now, we are seeing UAs being considered for law enforcement surveillance, meteorological conditions studies, fire fighting, disaster relief, border enforcement, etc."
Thousands of UAs already are in use as profit-making ventures in the United States and around the world, said Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Robert Owen, testifying at the same March 29 hearing as Sabatini. Not only is there no current regulatory coverage, but most operators also have no insurance coverage. About the closest these craft currently come to being regulated in the United States is an FAA advisory circular on the safe operation of model airplanes.
Moreover, the focus of UA regulatory development so far is only on military operations, which is not where UAs are likely to be viable economically on a large scale and in the near term, Owen said.
Because UA certification is considered a matter of "public aircraft operation" by the various government agencies involved, direct oversight for them actually falls outside of FAA authority, Sabatini says. But these public operations must still be in compliance with FAA regulations, and FAA issues the COAs that allow other government agencies to fly the craft.
For a manufacturer, FAA can issue an airworthiness certificate after the firm submits a thorough "program letter," describing the unmanned aircraft system and how and where the craft will be flown. Fourteen program letters have been received so far at FAA, but only two of certificates have been issued for General Atomics's Altair and for Bell-Textron's tilt-rotor Eagel Eye (photos of both are on p. 2). That number is expected to double to four this year.
FAA's Sabatini says the approved craft or systems have to have numerous fail-safe measures for loss of link and system failures." In case all links to ground control become lost, the first line of defense is ensuring beforehand that all flight paths are only in unpopulated areas. Also, the "pilot" (or ground commander) must immediately alert air traffic control (ATC) of a problem. Information about what the craft in question can do or can't do is pre- coordinated with ATC far in advance of the flight.
Certified UA operators are not yet required to report accidents or incidents to FAA, an agency spokesman tells Air Safety Week. But the agency is developing a program to request performance and reliability data, to assist in standards development.
Accident data, so far, appears to be anecdotal. The FAA spokesman cites the early April crash of one of an Eagle Eye. While "restrictions imbedded in the certificate prevented any injury or loss of life," information gathered from this crash points to "having robust standards for radio spectrum usage and protection from interference."
While the as-yet conceived detect-and-avoid system will eventually allow some UAs into the national airspace, other UAs will never get there, Sabatini says. A primary issue is the weight of the avionics, including transponders, versus the weight of the aircraft. In some cases, the latter is just a few ounces. Another potential safety issue stems from some UAs' ability to fly at twice the speed of large commercial aircraft, which complicates management of the airspace and the job of air traffic control.
So far, it also appears that the issue of "safety and UAs" is seen primarily as the safety concerns these aircraft raise. There doesn't appear to be much thought yet as to how the newly developed technology for UAs might someday improve safety for general or commercial aviation, particularly when pilots or flight crew become incapacitated.
Embry-Riddle's Owen adds that there are many low-end UA operators chomping at the bit to see the domestic industry open up a bit more, and are frustrated by FAA's reluctance to issue new regulations. Chief among Owen's legislative proposals for Congress would be the creation of a federal "knowledge manager" position. This individual, who would reside at an as-yet undetermined place in the federal bureaucracy, would serve as a single point of contact for many other civil agencies considering UA activities, disseminating information, and funding research and development to help both civil and commercial operators.
Nicholas Sabatini's testimony and other witness statements from the March 29 hearing are at http://www.house.gov/transportation.
>>Contacts: ALPA, (703) 689-2270, www.alpa.org
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