Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Won't Go Away

At issue is whether unmanned aerial systems (UAS) will ever provide "an equivalent level of safety" to manned aircraft operating in the NAS.

The National Transportation Safety Board's historic ruling on the

probable cause of the April 2006 Predator B unmanned aircraft crash in Arizona

represents just the first of a series of unmanned systems accident

investigations that will follow as drones of all sizes finally win approval by

federal air safety regulators to operate unfettered in the National Airspace

System (NAS).

The Safety Board ruled that the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) accident

was chiefly caused by the ground-based pilot's failure to use checklist

procedures to safely operate the aircraft. The NTSB issued 22 safety

recommendations to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Federal

Aviation Administration covering "a wide range of safety issues involving the

civilian use of unmanned aircraft," said Safety Board Chairman Mark V. Rosenker.

He said the contractor's performance in providing airborne border patrol

surveillance for the federal agency was not without issue. "This was not as

tight (an operation) as it should have been. CBP bought what it believed was a

solid operation, but mistakes were being made."

At issue is whether unmanned aerial systems (UAS) will ever provide "an

equivalent level of safety" to manned aircraft operating in the NAS.

"This investigation has raised questions about the different standards

for manned and unmanned aircraft and the safety implications of this

discrepancy," said Rosenker. "Why, for example, were numerous unresolved lock-

ups of the pilot's control console even possible while such conditions would

never be tolerated in the cockpit of a manned aircraft?"

Expressing concerns about how manned and unmanned aircraft will share the

same airspace, Chairman Rosenker said, "The fact that we approved 22 safety

recommendations based on our investigation of a single accident is an indication

of the scope of the safety issues these unmanned aircraft are bringing into the


The Safety Board's investigation revealed that the pilot was not

proficient in the performance of emergency procedures, which led to the

accident. "The pilot is still the pilot, whether he is at a remote console or on

the flight deck."

But Rosenker is bullish about the future of UAVs in the civil world.

"UAVs will be extremely important for the future of aviation. I see them being

used effectively in the civil environment, and eventually in the commercial

environment. These are exciting times, but we need a well thought out plan for

UAV operations and safety if they will be as successful as I believe they can


"This accident investigation will go a long way to making unmanned

aircraft operations in the NAS a much safer and efficient way of doing business.

In an interview after the NTSB hearing, Rosenker told Air Safety Week that "we

want to address UAV operations in the NAS early, before we have a lot of these

devices flying in airspace, possibly creating a very serious potential for


He said achieving "an equivalent level of safety" for drone operations in

the NAS is not just a goal, but a given. "We shouldn't settle for anything less.

A UAV can't be a rogue, exempt from appropriate rules and regulations that keep

our airspace safe and thus avoids chaos."

The CBP may again deal with the NTSB in that the law enforcement agency

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