In a July 15 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Border, Maritime, and Global Counterterrorism, Nancy Malinowski, Vice President for System Operation Services at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), testified that despite unmanned aerial systems (UASs) being a promising technology, “the limited safety and operational data available does not support expedited or full integration into the NAS [National Airspace System].” Almost all unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) missions are presently conducted by the military but continued advances in UAS technology are making the devices more attractive in the civil sector. The aircraft also trump their manned counterparts in terms of efficiency, safety, and operating costs. The FAA has approached the issue of UAV integration into domestic airspace with great caution, however, as it seeks to further investigate the risks.
Currently, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in the United States is restricted to designated areas. In order for government agencies, local law enforcement, and state universities to fly in civil airspace they must be granted a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) by the FAA. Private organizations must similarly apply for a Special Airworthiness Certificate – Experimental Category and only for the purposes of research, demonstrations, and training. A further requirement is the presence of a visual observer, either on the ground or in a chase aircraft, to monitor the vehicle’s flight path. To improve technologies and adequately prepare for in-theatre operations the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security need access to larger areas of domestic airspace. As for the commercial sector, UASs are an untapped resource that have the potential to revolutionize a number of important industries.
The FAA’s greatest concern with permitting UAVs to fly in the same airspace as conventional aircraft is the unmanned operator’s inability to “see and avoid,” an aviation requirement under the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 14, Part 91.113. The limitation is of particular concern considering the growing volume of air traffic, as witnessed by three near-collisions of manned aircraft in the past eight weeks being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board. Furthermore, evidence suggests UAVs are more prone to accidents. Malinowsky’s testimony notes that the accident rate reported by Customs and Border Protection, which uses the aircraft to monitor illegal border activity, is 353 times greater than that of manned, commercial aviation.
Despite the many obstacles associated with integrating UASs into national airspace the FAA and industry leaders are actively seeking solutions. For example, in early June, Insitu, an operating unit of Boeing, agreed to provide the FAA with a ScanEagle UAV to conduct research at the William J. Hughes Technical Training Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Two alternative technologies to bring unmanned aviation into compliance with the “see and avoid” requirement are Ground-Based Sense and Avoid (GBSAA) and Airborne-Based Sense and Avoid (ABSAA) sensors, both of which use radar systems to provide the UAS controller with position and traffic information. GBSAA systems are the more attractive option because of lower costs and a shorter timeline for development.
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