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Wednesday, June 1, 2016


Just about a month ago, I was in New Orleans for the annual gathering of the Assn. of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International — the trade group for air, ground and marine drone manufacturers and operators.

The weather outside was gorgeous — clear, sunny, warm and relatively dry. Conditions inside the “Xponential” show’s exhibit hall and conference rooms were less favorable. I’d described them as obscured.

The popular story is that unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), particularly the smaller ones, have a bright future. They could deliver medicine to rural sites, speed parcels to your home and make your life more convenient and comfortable. All this and more, if only the FAA would lift its registration, operations and airspace burdens from the backs of outfits that produce and operate such aircraft.

The future is hardly that bright and shiny.

A fog of confusion and misunderstanding shrouds the UAS horizon. After years of debate, consultation and some collaboration, UAS proponents and the orthodox aviation community still speak different languages. Their inability to use a common tongue makes it impossible to reach a truce to create a path for unmanned aircraft and their operators to join as full-fledged members of the aviation community.

Let’s set aside the most obvious term of contention: drone. UAS advocates disparage the term. They argue that it ignores their aircraft’s autonomous operational capabilities, thus minimizing such vehicles’ potential contributions to aviation and to society as a whole.

Yet AUVSI leaders, speakers and attendees used “drone” freely at the show. I heard it everywhere I turned.

The more confused term is “safety,” and that confusion stymies the drone’s prospects. This was evident in many discussions at the show.

Drone proponents want access to U.S. airspace on par with that granted aircraft whose pilots are onboard. They argue that the FAA’s restrictions choke off development of an industry that would bring not only economic benefits but also safety ones to society.

These advocates argue that drones can be used to inspect powerlines without requiring two humans to be aloft close by those lines, one piloting the helicopter and the other sitting on an outboard platform to eyeball the lines. They can inspect industrial flare stacks more efficiently and safely than humans can do by climbing a stack for flying near it, these boosters say. Small drones could be flown into confined spaces like large boilers and furnaces, averting the need for human inspectors to don protective gear and breathing apparatus and climb in such oxygen-sparse, hazardous environments.

But unfettered access is not needed to perform such tasks. They are limited in scope, timing and location, and perfectly suited to the FAA’s current regime of regulatory exemptions and specific authorizations.

Drone advocates cite such tasks as reasons for freeing drones. But they seem reluctant to accept or acknowledge that when they say “safety” theirs is a meaning vastly different from that embraced by the rest of aviation.

When a manned aircraft maker, operator or vendor refers to safety, the term is quantifiable. There is a number attached to it, one that is derived by proven design principles and practices and affirmed by testing or operational experience (or both).

In short, aircraft with pilots on board have hard data proving that they have earned the privilege — and it is a privilege — to fly in civil airspace. We have great confidence (based on standards, analysis and testing) that the aircraft and parts on it will not fail earlier than X number of flight hours, that such failures generally will not jeopardize safety before there have been two or three chances to catch the pending failure in an inspection and that if a part fails it will do so in a way that allows the pilot to land before people die. For parts that don’t meet those standards, operational restrictions and emergency procedures bound the potential threat.

Drones have proved none of this. There is no commonly accepted standard for demonstrating a UAS’ airworthiness (designed or continuing), nor are there ones for establishing the competence of those who fly and fix them.

Drone proponents use “safety” as emotional bait, while the rest of aviation uses it as an engineering term. As long as the sides speak different languages, drones will remain quarantined in U.S. skies.

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