In the lull between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced the six locations it has chosen as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) test sites as part of the research and certification effort that eventually will see UAS integrated into the National Airspace System [NAS] (“Safety Briefs”). The establishment of a test site program was mandated by the U.S. Congress in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, and represents a significant milestone in the UAS integration process.
The research and testing will not be accomplished overnight. According to the FAA, test site operations will continue until at least mid-February 2017. There are a myriad of problems to be solved and issues to be worked out, not the least of which are widely held privacy concerns. But one day, in the not too distant future, manned and remotely piloted aircraft will ply the same airways over the United States.
In its document “Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the National Airspace System Roadmap,” the FAA says, “Ultimately, UAS must be integrated into the NAS without reducing existing capacity, decreasing safety, negatively impacting current operators, or increasing the risk to airspace users or persons and property on the ground any more than the integration of comparable new and novel technologies.”
It is imperative that safety be baked into civil/commercial UAS operations from the outset, and that means during the testing phase. I’m not talking about just operating the UAS safely at the test sites, but about learning from the test site operations as we do in commercial and business operations.
Tom Anthony, director of the Aviation Safety and Security Program at the University of Southern California, and colleague Harrison Wolf contend in the InSight article (“Right From the Start”), “The United States has an historic opportunity to influence the safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems in its National Airspace System by implementing a safety management system (SMS) for UAS operators now — before the full UAS integration into the NAS.” Anthony and Wolf go on to propose that UAS operators using any of the six test sites be required to report operational data to the FAA to identify hazards and develop mitigations.
InSight articles, by their nature, are opinion pieces, and this one is no different. The opinions expressed in the article are the authors’ and not necessarily those of Flight Safety Foundation. Still, Anthony and Wolf make a good argument, and, if I were in a decision-making role at FAA, I would seriously consider it.