Integrating Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System (NAS) is arguably the most difficult task the FAA has ever been assigned. Aviation regulations were promulgated for manned aircraft, so new regulations and stringent guidance from the FAA is required. UAS pilots and crews will need to be certificated. Control stations, data links and UAS’s must comply with stringent manufacturing, testing and operational standards. The machines must employ extensive redundant control, tracking, navigation and collision avoidance systems, and maintenance requirements will be as strict as for manned aircraft. The FAA is in the unenviable position of having to regulate this industry, while also promoting its growth. UAS technology is advancing at a lightning pace, and the government is expected to keep up. But generally, it formulates laws based on technology that is a decade old. The industry deems this unacceptable.
While the FAA waits for the technology to mature sufficiently to safely mix UAS’s with manned flights, they are attempting to deal with a plethora of inexpensive, small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) or “microdrones” into the consumer market. In the past two years, an explosion has hit the market – inexpensive, stable, and easy-to-fly battery powered remote control helicopters and multi-rotor designs. Flight control systems incorporate three-axis ring laser gyros and accelerometers and GPS. Gyro-stabilized camera mounts, miniature microwave transmitters and receivers for First Person View (FPV) systems can also be attached. All of these features add an unprecedented element of safety. Today, for less than $1,000, anyone can get into the HD aerial filming business.
Most sUAS’s were designed for and must be flown within line-of-sight of the operator. However, with a good FPV system, the operator can fly the unit to nearly a mile away without losing control or video feed. Because FPV enables the operator to fly out of visual range and to much higher altitudes (visual orientation above 400 ft. AGL is difficult), there is the potential to interfere with manned flights. Earlier this year, the FAA indicated it wanted to ban FPV systems. But now an entire selection of affordable FPV systems are available, and microdrone flyers are using them.
Hobbyists can escape FAA scrutiny if they fly below 400 ft. AGL are able to see and avoid manned aircraft flights, and not fly within the vicinity of an airport. However, many operators are not pilots. Because of this, stories often appear about a microdrone operator that violated controlled or restricted airspace or crashed into a landmark at a national park. In many cases, aspiring film producers or commercial operators, masquerading as hobbyists, are the culprits. These operators, who will eventually ruin it for everyone, have no conception of airspace and often lack common sense. Not employing actual aviation experience (or personal risk analysis thought processes), they end up in airspace where they have no business flying.
To curb misconduct, the FAA brought numerous enforcement actions against remote control (RC) modelers and microdrone operators. But several courts ruled earlier this year that the FAA can’t violate commercial and hobby UAS pilots based on “policy statements.”
The FAA can take enforcement action in the form of levying fines or revoking or suspending certificates. However, they must have the force of law (in the form of a regulation) behind them. There is a process to do so; it’s called a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM). Public Law 112-95, drafted by Congress in 2012, specifically addressed UAS operations in the NAS. The law exempted modelers from new regulations. But the FAA, concerned about an explosion of safety and airspace violations and subsequent court dismissals, issued an “Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft” spelling out what should be allowed and what should be banned. Comments on this “interpretation” were then solicited via an NPRM. The comment period was extended to the end of September at the behest of the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). The AMA, and modeler community, is not happy. Blogs and forums are replete with recriminations of multi-rotor operators; that they are ruining the hobby.
The FAA is expected to release another NPRM this month addressing sUAS operations in the NAS. More regulations are inevitable, and we will do our best to keep R&W readers informed on this important subject.