Throughout 2014, observations and media-derived awareness of potentially hazardous flights by small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS), called remotely piloted aircraft at the international level, have prompted consternation for some U.S. aviation safety professionals. At issue, two UAS subject matter experts told AeroSafety World, is whether unauthorized commercial sUAS flights, in particular, pose a significant risk to air transport, business aviation and other aviation activities.
Such flights are prohibited by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) unless the operator is one of a select few to have received an exemption from the Federal Aviation Regulations. The experts who spoke to ASW offered different approaches to address the risk that they see.
Insights into relevant FAA positions surfaced in the briefing by John Hickey, deputy associate administrator for aviation safety, at an Air Line Pilots Association, International Safety Forum in August. “I think that, to some degree, [operating non-segregated UAS] is not going to be as soon as some people tend to think it is,” he said. “We’re still many years away from what you would see as safe integration in the very busiest airspace in our system. … As the public sees … that we will not allow these UAS to come into the system until we are completely sure that they are safe, that’s a great step to educating the public.”
Perceptions also may be influenced by developments such as the September 2013 announcement of the FAA issuing its first-ever commercial, type-approved, restricted-category aircraft authorization for corporate UAS flights in the Arctic airspace of Alaska. “We’ve been very engaged in providing exemptions to a limited group of commercial operations as a result of … Section 333 of [the 2012 FAA funding] reauthorization bill,” Hickey said. “Exemptions allow certain entities in certain isolated airspace to operate a business venture [such as] the Motion Picture Association of America, and we granted an exemption to them.”
As for sUAS (aircraft less than 55 lb [25 kg], often flown with direct, line-of-sight control by the pilot), the FAA has scheduled for late 2014 the publication of its notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) for this category, he said.
Ben Gielow, general counsel and senior government relations manager, Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), told ASW editors, “We’re obviously very concerned with the possibility of [an sUAS operator] going out there and flying recklessly and dangerously, which is why we … have been asking the FAA for years to regulate us, to pass the safety rules — we actually want the regulations.
“[Those] flying in downtown New York City over people, or flying around the very busy airports there, certainly are not members of ours. … There’s not a whole lot that can be done right now to stop or prohibit them from just going out and buying the systems online. [Some] don’t know anything and just are flying them, and don’t realize the safety risks that they could be posing.”
The association has called for intensified FAA enforcement of current restrictions and implementing enforceable regulations as the most important risk mitigations. “Until they do, they’re on legal ‘thin ice’ in punishing people for flying a [radio control (RC)] model aircraft, a Raven, as [a] commercial unmanned aircraft,” Gielow said.
AUVSI foresees problems if regulations emerge with uniform treatment of all sUAS flights that have in common solely their commercial purposes. “Unmanned aircraft are not commercial [air] carriers, they are not carrying people, and often they only weigh a couple pounds [0.9 kg],” he said. “So although they may be taking pictures and those pictures may be sold commercially, they shouldn’t have to meet the same level of safety requirements across the board. … Everyone in the industry anticipates that [the new sUAS] regulations will be, or at least should be, different based on size, weight, performance and airspace that they fly in.”
While the industry awaits the sUAS NPRM, speculation abounds regarding the extent to which FAA requirements — such as provisions for personnel certification — will be carried over from or inspired by manned aircraft experience. “Everyone wants to know ‘What are the pilots’ qualifications?” he said. “Do they really need to build up all the hours in a manned aircraft just to prove that they know the airspace?”
Benefits from the FAA’s sUAS rulemaking, he said, typically are described in terms of investments, competitive advantage beyond U.S. borders and exports. Yet safety meanwhile is affected in that, Gielow said, “the reality is we need the FAA to write these rules. We’ve been reading more and more about folks … just going out there and flying [sUAS commercially] today — either [not] knowing the FAA prohibitions or knowing them … but doing it anyway, then challenging the FAA to come after them. So we’re at a dangerous time because if the FAA does not hurry up and come out with something soon, more … will go out there and fly, and if this ‘horse gets out of the barn,’ I don’t see it coming back in.”
Unauthorized commercial flying arguably generates a drag on limited FAA enforcement resources and a distraction. “The FAA does not have the money or the manpower to track down every reported use of a 4-lb [1.8-kg] quadcopter, whether it’s flying inside of a fireworks display or over a farm field,” Gielow said. “It doesn’t make sense that the only thing different between a model aircraft and an unmanned aircraft is the intent of the pilot, which has nothing to do with the actual safety of the aircraft or airspace.” The focus on detecting illegal commercial operations consumes part of air safety inspectors’ time, he added.
“Once the rules are out, the FAA … will have leveled the playing field so that responsible parties will then hold nonresponsible parties accountable,” he said. “Then I think there will be an industry effort to ensure that everyone is safe. But right now, [sUAS operations are] basically turning into the Wild West — folks … doing whatever they want.”
The association, which primarily represents interests of manufacturers of large UAS, in recent years has been collaborating closely on safety issues with the sUAS community, the RC model aircraft community, the commercial air transport sector, the business aviation sector, helicopter operators, general aviation associations, air traffic controllers and other stakeholders, he said. For example, the association rounded up executives from 32 aviation associations to sign an April letter urging the FAA to expedite its second attempt at sUAS rulemaking in part because of discomfort about the “safety vacuum” of the status quo.
Regarding RC model aircraft hobbyists, Gielow said, “On the safety front, there is a lot that we learn from their community because, for the very small [sUAS aircraft] — operating under restrictions of [see-and-avoid] line-of-sight, at less than 400 ft, away from people — [such] commonsense safety restrictions could greatly enable the [sUAS] industry to take off.”
Small-Scale Risk Mitigation
The safety culture that has evolved across several generations of RC model aircraft hobbyists focuses on reducing the risk of injury or property damage — to themselves or others — in the United States, says Richard Hanson, director, public relations and government affairs, Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA).
AMA protects members under a group insurance program that provides $2.5 million liability coverage for each. The insurance claim records kept by the program have helped AMA to monitor the safety of members’ activities and adjust safety policies, flight operations procedures, member education and flying rules effectively enough to essentially avoid the need for government regulation of the hobby, he said.
Most of the injuries captured in these records have involved AMA-member hobbyists who have been injured by their own aircraft, with typical injury severity being a cut finger and the rarest being five cases in which the modeler flying was killed by his own aircraft. “For the most part, [events involved] mishandling of their aircraft, or something that went awry, and they got hit in the knees, hit in the lower legs [while] taxiing or something like that,” Hanson said. “As far as injuries to people outside the hobby, those are very rare but there have been some instances. … As far as property damage, we’ve had a few instances where the aircraft was going out of control and was going back [to the operator] and hit vehicles in the parking lot and broke windshields, those types of things. It’s a very rare occasion where the aircraft actually leaves the flying site.”
Flying of model aircraft predates manned aviation, and the institutional knowledge of the AMA — founded in 1936 — preserves awareness of the five member fatalities and the death of a bystander who, in 1979, was observing an RC model aircraft demonstration at a flying field, he said. The AMA in recent years received anecdotal reports of minor injuries — but no fatal injuries — caused to nonmember operators and bystanders struck by multi-rotor sUAS–type aircraft in flight.
“[AMA’s] more traditional, core members … design, build, fly and compete with these model aircraft for the personal pleasure of watching them fly, learning how to fly and becoming good at flying the aircraft,” Hanson said. “That is the motivation, the purpose for their participation in the hobby.” Yet, about 30 percent of AMA members who responded to an informal AMA survey also expressed strong interest in owning and flying sUAS. “[They] have some interest in this technology — either for their personal use — to extend their hobby into this area or with the idea, somehow, of making a business or at least creating some revenue stream from it. … The most prevalent one is aerial photography, but there are literally thousands of other applications.”
Like the FAA, the AMA recognizes that the distinction of flying a traditional model aircraft versus commercially flying an sUAS involves serious safety concerns. “Even though they are very similar in nature, the fact that [the sUAS] can perform a function and have a purpose lends them to being introduced in environments [beyond] where you would typically find a model aircraft,” Hanson said. “Our safety guidelines for model aircraft are that you fly at a location away from persons that can get hurt or property. By the nature of doing something purposeful, with [sUAS] you are around people and around things … so we … have been working about a year with that community and coming up with a unique set of safety guidelines for that aspect of operating this equipment.”
During the past year, in the absence of new FAA regulations, AMA decided to actively engage in public education to fill the vacuum of knowledge about sUAS risks and benefits.
Those in the AMA who favored this issue engagement — as opposed to the alternative of officially drawing a line between model airplanes and UAS, and disavowing any responsibility for sUAS safety — prevailed. “The general public doesn’t know … the distinction between a UAS and a model airplane. … [We’re] reaching out to [the sUAS] community, finding people who want to fly safely and responsibly, and teaching them how to do so. … Then the true outliers, [the people who] choose to operate irresponsibly, can be dealt with by regulation, local ordinances and so forth.”
AMA has productive, longstanding working relationships with many of the associations representing industry segments in the domain of manned aviation, including safety specialists from commercial air transport and business aviation, he said. “But what we find, by and large, is that they [typically] have very little knowledge about or understanding of the hobby and how it operates,” Hanson said. “There haven’t been model-airplane [vs.] manned-aircraft incidents of any significant numbers. You can literally count them on one hand. … [They’re] not seeing model aircraft getting ingested into engines. [They’re] not seeing model aircraft striking the windscreens of full-scale aircraft. By and large, [they’re] not seeing model aircraft anywhere in the manned aircraft environment.”
Unfamiliar Newcomer Traits
Hanson links the spate of 2014 reports alleging that an sUAS operator created risks for a manned aircraft operation to the emergence of newcomers to the technology who have not “grown up in the model aircraft culture” and who, because of ignorance, fail to operate safely. Changing the behavior of those people, he believes, requires a human factors–centered strategy unlike the relatively complex culture, practices and assumptions of manned aviation.
If efforts to instill safe flying behavior among today’s new sUAS owners prove ineffective, several consequences seem likely, according to Hanson’s interactions with them so far. “Basically, some of them will quit because they don’t want to be viewed as operating irresponsibly,” he said, noting that others will continue flying without regard to overly complex safety rules if those rules do not make sense to them. Still others will continue flying their sUAS contrary to safety rules and guidance “because they don’t care,” he said.
“A lot of [sUAS] depend highly on GPS [global positioning system] signals, and if that signal is lost — whether due to some circuitry or other issue with the aircraft — the people don’t know how to fly the aircraft any other way. They can’t manually fly the aircraft and keep [their operation] safe. So there are some unique educational training and safety challenges with this community.”
The AMA has been accustomed to modelers adhering to its rules for the identification of owners of RC model aircraft to enable retrieval of an aircraft that inadvertently flies away from the designated flying field, and to show legal and ethical accountability for the consequences of the operator’s actions and/or system malfunctions. The sUAS community should have an equivalent method — perhaps a formal registration program with a registration number for each sUAS aircraft, Hanson said.
“We also believe that this community — because of the potential for flying in more sensitive areas — needs to be more accountable in terms of their education and training,” he said, suggesting perhaps a universally recognized endorsement program.
AMA staff and members who fly sUAS at noncommercial, public awareness and educational demonstrations under AMA rules have encountered many people in the audience who say they see no need to learn how to fly such aircraft because the aircraft always will fly itself. “That’s absolutely wrong,” Hanson said. “The technology is not bulletproof. It’s no more reliable than the technology your cell phone has. It’s built on the same [location-sensing] circuitry that’s in your cell phone, and we all know how many times a phone tells you you’ve got ‘GPS lock lost’ and [you have to reboot] because an application software locked up. People need to know how to handle emergent situations when they occur.”
Because of an exemption in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, AMA members’ activities with traditional RC model aircraft essentially will continue in isolation from the forthcoming FAA regulatory changes focused on sUAS, he said. The language of the law refers in part to applicability to any organization that has a proven community-based safety program and a long track record of effective safety management.
AMA is concerned that no matter how often the FAA places official policy-interpretation announcements in the Federal Register prohibiting commercial operation of the sUAS that people already possess, both the defiance of rules and ignorant behavior seem poised to continue and potentially to increase the risk for other airspace users.
“They’re being sold by the thousands,” Hanson said. “We believe we need education [now] — not in 2016 — so we’re going forward with that education.”