FAA: Unmanned and commercial aircraft don't mix -- yet

Unmanned operations in civilian airspace have tripled since 2007

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While the number of permitted unmanned aircraft operations in commercial airspace has tripled since 2007, the Federal Aviation Administration says routine drone access to civilian airspace is years away. 

"While the [Unmanned Aircraft Systems] UAS is undoubtedly the way of the future, my concern must be on today, and right now, the era of the unmanned aircraft system in civilian airspace is just not here yet. The level of technical maturity isn't where it needs to be for full operation in the National Airspace System," FAA administrator J. Randolph Babbitt told a meeting of aerospace executives this week in Scottsdale, AZ. 

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In order for us to get to the place where the UAS can become a viable, accepted part of the national airspace system, we have to make sure the UAS can sense-and-avoid is more than a given - it must be a guarantee, Babbitt said.  

The definition of "see and avoid" for UAS is "the capability of an unmanned aircraft system to remain well clear from and avoid collisions with other airborne traffic and vice-versa," Babbitt stated.  "Without a pilot who can look and scan to the left and the right - just the way you and I do when we're backing out of a parking space - there's a perceived level of risk that the American public isn't ready for." 

There are technical issues as well. Most UAS have a single point of failure for hydraulics, electrical, flight control and satellite link. "That's a concern," Babbitt stated. 

Having stated all those concerns, mitigating the risk is the direction the FAA and many others are working on now because while there are concerns, it is  clear unmanned aircraft systems are here to stay, Babbitt added.

Given that unmanned aircraft are becoming the method of choice to conduct mapping, fire detection, scientific missions, weather mapping, volcanic sampling, search and rescues, disaster response and security surveillance, the need for standardized regulations has never been more paramount." he stated.

According to Babbitt the FAA is working on official rules for UAS that will define standards for routine commercial operations.  The FAA is  also working on revising a memorandum of agreement with DoD that addresses specific critical access needs, Babbitt said. 

The UAS Executive Committee - the ExCom - has been established to develop solutions to allow incremental access of UAS into the NAS. The ExCom is a multi-agency, Federal executive-level committee including FAA, DoD, DHS and NASA, Babbitt noted. 

There is a ton of work underway to meld the UAS with commercial air systems. The Department of Defense plans to spend over $7 billion in research, development, test, and evaluation funds for unmanned aircraft between fiscal years 2007 and 2013 to help develop a regulatory framework that would let unmanned aircraft have routine national airspace access. 

According to a GAO report  earlier this year, the FAA has budgeted $4.7 million for fiscal years 2007 through 2009 for further unmanned systems research on topics such as detect, sense, and avoid; command and control; and system safety management. NASA, FAA, and others have conducted tests to determine the capabilities of and potential improvements to detect, sense, and avoid technology. 

The FAA has established a 12,000 square mile unmanned system test center to provide airspace for testing and evaluating unmanned aircraft and to provide data for use in developing regulations. FAA expects to obtain additional data from increased coordination with the DoD. To address expected workload increases, FAA is introducing more automation into its work processes and has granted DoD authority to operate small unmanned systems weighing 20lbs or less, over its installations without receiving prior FAA approval, according to the GAO report.

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