Safety a big target in letting unmanned aircraft in national airspace

FAA exec. testifies on unmanned aircraft safety concerns

There is a push by a variety of proponents to give unmanned aircraft more free reign in the nation's airspace but safety is a  major hitch in that effort. 

The Federal Aviation Administration said this week that data from the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, which flies unmanned systems on border patrols shows a total of 5,688 flight hours from Fiscal Year 2006 to July 13, 2010. The CBP accident rate is 52.7 accidents per 100,000 flight hours. This accident rate is more than seven times the general aviation accident rate (7.11 accidents/100,000 flight hours) and 353 times the commercial aviation accident rate (0.149 accidents/100,000 flight hours).

Those kinds of numbers - while a small batch indeed - are guaranteed to keep unmanned aircraft out of the general airspace for a long time.  

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"While the CBP accident rate appears to be higher than general or commercial aviation, we note that CBP's total reported flight hours of 5,688 are very small in comparison to the 100,000 hour standard typically used to reflect aviation safety data and accident rates. CBP has had seven deviations -- where the aircraft has done something unplanned or unexpected and violates an airspace regulation -- so far this fiscal year in over 1,300 hours of flight time, as compared to the five deviations in 1,127 hours of flight time in Fiscal Year 2009." Said Nancy Kalinowski, the FAA's Vice President for System Operations Services told a Congressional hearing this week. 

Kalinowski acknowledged the growth in interest of gaining unmanned systems increase public airspace access.  She noted that for UASs to gain access to the civil airspace, the FAA has a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) process. This is the way public users be they government agencies, Federal, state, and local law enforcement, as well as state universities that wish to fly a UAS can gain access to national airspace encompasses an average of more than 100,000 aviation operations per day, provided that the risks of flying the unmanned aircraft in the civil airspace can be appropriately mitigated, she said.

"In 2009, we issued 146 COAs. So far this year, we have issued 122 COAs, and we are on track to issue over 200 this year. At the current time, we have 268 active COAs on 133 different aircraft types, issued to 151 proponents. CBP currently has 11 COAs issued to them," she said. "Although the technology incorporated into UASs has advanced, their safety record warrants careful review."

There have been a number of developments in recent weeks to further study the impact of flying unmanned aircraft in the national airspace.

In June the FAA  set a two-year research and development agreement with Insitu - an independent subsidiary of Boeing and the New Jersey Air National Guard that will help  FAA scientists to study and better understand unmanned aircraft design, construction and features.  Researchers will also look at the differences in how an air traffic controller would manage an unmanned aircraft vs. a manned aircraft.

Also in June, the FAA it opened a new laboratory where scientists will use computer simulation technology explore how future systems such as unmanned aircraft and new navigation concepts will perform in the agency's future airspace structure.  As part of the research, GE is working with unmanned aircraft builder, AAI to demonstrate flights with its Shadow tactical unmanned aircraft.  

Integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace will be no easy task. The Government Accountability Office last year laid out the difficulties stating that routine unmanned aircraft access to national airspace poses technological, regulatory, workload, and coordination challenges. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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