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
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
will acquire at least six Predator B UAS to patrol both the northern and
southern borders of the U.S.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S.
Forest Service have been early proponents of regular UAS operations in the NAS,
having successfully demonstrated how UAS can counter major wildfires fueled by
extreme heat and drought.
This past summer, they conducted flights of a Predator B remotely piloted
vehicle equipped with advanced imaging and communications equipment to capture
real-time thermal infrared images of western states wildfires, which were passed
along to firefighters on the ground.
The Ikhana, a Predator B modified for civil science and research
missions, flew again in October, assisting firefighters battling the Southern
"In the not-too-distant future, we'll look back at unmanned aircraft
demonstrations and realize that these flights paved the way for civilian use of
unmanned aircraft that benefit all of us, said NASA's Brent Cobleigh.
The FAA has already cleared Predators for domestic disaster relief
operations, giving the U.S. Air Force permission in 2006 to conduct humanitarian
missions in civil airspace as required and within specific flight restrictions.
The USAF used a Global Hawk UAS to collect high-altitude imagery of the Southern
California wildfires, representing the first domestic use of the military
Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is sending
small drones with advanced weather-watching equipment deep into hurricanes.
At least three local police departments have purchased or have budgeted
money to buy small drones to help them respond to emergencies and for traffic
and crowd control. But the FAA has stepped in, keeping the police UAS grounded
pending establishment of operating regulations for unfettered flights.
Chief Donald Shinnamon, director of public safety for the city of Holly
Hill, Florida, and an expert on the use of manned rotorcraft and UAS for law
enforcement, says opportunities exist for use of drones at the local government
level. "There is a huge market for fire departments and emergency management
departments to employ this technology because UAS are affordable and have a
lower noise signature," he believes.
"We all stand to benefit from local departments employing small UAS," he
said, but he charges that "regulation is lagging behind the technology and that
the FAA declines to engage in a meaningful dialogue with non-Department of
Defense UAS operators."
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently issued a technical bulletin
regarding law enforcement use of unmanned aircraft systems.
It said "UAS is a rapidly emerging technology that has exceptional appeal
to law enforcement" but DOJ warned that the operation of a UAS by a public
agency, whether it is federal, state or local law enforcement, is enforced by
The DOJ said prior to purchasing or leasing a UAS, potential law
enforcement users should consider the following:
* For a public aircraft operation, the FAA holds the position that a
Certificate of Authorization (COA) is required to operate UAS in the National
* The FAA has stated publicly that COAs would not be issued for use of a
UAS over populated areas, such as may be defined by the yellow areas on aviation
sectionals (aviation map). This includes most cities and densely populated
* The FAA will consider issuing a COA for operations in unpopulated areas
as long as the agency seeking the COA can demonstrate that the operation is
safe, that sufficient risk mitigations are in place, and the operators have
sufficient training (which includes a pilot's license and medical certificate);
* Any law enforcement agency operating a UAS will be required to
establish their own airworthiness for the UAS. The airworthiness establishment
is the responsibility of the agency and not the vendor. Remember, any agency
applying for and receiving a COA assumes liability for the entire operation.
While vendor information may be used in deeming an aircraft airworthy, it should
not be the only information relied upon;
* The operation of a UAS requires a FAA certificated pilot with a current
class II medical certificate and an observer, who while not required to be a
pilot, but must have a class II medical certificate;
* A vendor approaching a law enforcement agency offering to demonstrate a
UAS to an agency must have an experimental airworthiness certificate issued by
the FAA prior to the flight. A vendor cannot rely upon an agencies COA to fly
the aircraft. COAs are only issued for aircraft that qualify as "public"
* The rules allowing the recreation use of model aircraft by hobbyist DO
NOT allow law enforcement agencies to use a UAS without a COA;
* There are currently no comprehensive studies that confirm the safety
records or vendor published data regarding the use of UASs. Problems identified
by the military's evaluation of UAS have included radio interference,
unexplained control loss, and the durability of the units for repeat flight
operations. Department of Defense UAS Program Managers expressed at a recent FAA
meeting on UAS, that they rarely get 10 or more missions accomplished with one
UAS unit due to crashes;
* It is not anticipated that the FAA will amend their position on the
operations of UAS before the year 2010. However, there are two key activities
taking place that will push the airspace access issue forward. The first is that
the FAA has agreed to conduct two test projects with major metropolitan police
departments. One is Miami/Dade, and the other is Houston. Each of these will
provide valuable insight into the difficulties that may exist in operating UAS
in urban environments. The other activity is the creation of new regulation for
small UAS to fly in the airspace. This recent development is just starting and
will be the genesis for getting small UAS flying in a majority of the U.S.
without a COA. Rulemaking can take time, however, so stick with the COA process
for the next year or two.
Through the Office of Justice Program's National Institute of Justice
(NIJ) and its Aviation Technology Program, law enforcement will have the chance
to voice their opinions regarding the use of UAS in the NAS.
NIJ is working with the FAA on rules and regulations regarding the use of
UAS by law enforcement that both enhance the mission of public safety and
provide for the safety of other aircraft in the national airspace and those on
NIJ is planning a forum on the use of UAS by law enforcement with FAA
participation during the winter of 20072008. NIJ invites interested law
enforcement agencies to participate in this process.