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Saturday, December 1, 2012

Column: Who’s Flying This Plane?

Frances Fiorino

Hold on, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are coming to civilian airspace near you! Trainers and aviation authorities worldwide are preparing for the forecast boom of civil-use UASs in the next decade. One of the biggest challenges they face in the quest to safely integrate UASs into the airspace is setting training/licensing qualification standards for pilots who “fly” these vehicles from the ground.

ICAO has issued guidance in the development of harmonized standards, but no standard licensing criteria exists worldwide, even in the military, where UAS pilot training requirements differ from service to service, country to country. In the years ahead, we expect to hear increased discussion about safety concerns surrounding mix of manned and unmanned vehicles in commercial airspace and qualifications of their remote pilots.

In the next decade, the market for government and commercial UASs is forecast to result in global procurement expenditures of $89.1 billion, $28.5 billion of which is for R&D, according to a September Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on FAA’s progress with UAS integration.

Unmanned aircraft — which, just to confuse us, are also referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles, drones, and remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) — come in all shapes and sizes, from size of a human hand to Boeing 737. They will be launched in civil-use airspace for various missions including firefighting, search and rescue, weather observation, as well as in law enforcement and border patrol work.

Considering the U.S. air traffic system daily handles more than 100,000 flights of manned commercial, general aviation and military flights, one can understand the growing concern about how a pilot sitting at a ground console can comply with operational flight rules and safely maneuver unmanned aircraft in complex airspace. FAA notes “It is critical that UAS do not endanger current users of the National Airspace System (NAS), including manned and other unmanned aircraft, or compromise the safety of persons or property on the ground.”

The International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations’ (IFALPA) UAS Position Paper published in October outlines the concerns of commercial airline pilots: “UAS technology is not capable of replacing human capabilities, particularly in complex and safety critical situations … The safe integration into civilian non-segregated airspace can only be achieved if UAS are regarded in all ways as aircraft. UAS and their operations must comply with all existing rules and regulations applicable to other aircraft in the same class of airspace.”

Further, IFALPA notes the design standards and certification regulations for civilian and military UASs that operate in civilian airspace be subject to the same directives as manned aircraft.

Currently, civil aviation authorities authorize commercial use of UASs in segregated airspace on a case-by-case basis. Aviation authorities worldwide, including FAA, Transport Canada and the U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) are addressing the issues. The U.K. CAA’s CAP722, “Unmanned Aircraft System Operations in U.K. Airspace” published in August offers perhaps the most advanced guidance. It highlights safety requirements that must be met, in terms of airworthiness and operational standards, before a UAS is allowed to operate in the U.K. CAA notes the document’s ultimate aim is “... to develop a regulatory framework that will enable the full integration of UAS activities with manned aircraft operations throughout the U.K. airspace.”

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 mandates the agency to fully integrate unmanned systems into the NAS by September 2015. To that end, FAA established the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office and was working on solicitation of proposals for six UAS test sites. FAA is developing a comprehensive plan to integrate UASs. The effort includes pilot training as well as making certain unmanned aircraft “see and avoid” other aircraft and can operate safely if they lose the link to their remote pilot.

The GAO report notes the inability to “see and avoid” is an obstacle to safe integration and IFALPA voices the similar concern, adding “….the UAS must be equipped to provide collision avoidance at all times and safe separation when positive ATC separation is not provided.”

A team from the University of North Dakota (UND), NASA and the MITRE Corp. is developing and testing “sense and avoid” technology with the goal of developing performance standards. A September demonstration flight of the technology involved two single-engine aircraft: a Cirrus SR-22 testbed, mimicking a UAS, loaded with sense and avoid algorithms, and an “intruder” aircraft, a Cessna 172 flown by a UND pilot. The SR-22 successfully detected and avoided the 172. The SR-22 had a safety pilot onboard, but the MITRE and UND computer programs automatically maneuvered the aircraft away from the conflict. The team plans follow-on testing.

Pilots, remote and otherwise, train safe, and fly safe out there!

Frances Fiorino has more than 20 years’ experience as an aviation journalist with major publications. She holds a private pilot license and covers air safety and simulation/training issues in the transport and general aviation sectors.

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