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15 May 2014

AUVSI 2014: US Airspace Pace Frustrates

Few in the US are satisfied with the pace of progress for two major Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-managed programmes: The NextGen airspace infrastructure upgrade and enabling commercial use of drones.

An overhaul of the US national airspace infrastructure to a presumably more efficient satellite-based system has been sporadically hampered by ground-based problems, especially apparent lack of will by American politicians. And while it has its hands full trying to push NextGen technology to sceptical airlines, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) must also try to cope with increasing pressure to allow thousands more aircraft in the skies in the form of commercial-use drones.

In the eyes of many, the FAA is not managing either challenge well.

In late February, the Inspector General (IG) of the US Department of Transportation (DOT), the FAA’s overseer, stated, “While the FAA is making progress with elements of NextGen, our work continues to find longstanding problems with cost increases, schedule slips, and performance shortfalls with NextGen-related air traffic control projects.”

About the same time, a federal judge exacerbated the FAA’s drone quandary, dismissing a fine the FAA imposed on the commercial operator of an UAS, claiming the agency did not have authority to enforce rules it has not yet written.

Delay of the Drones

The FAA expects as many as 7,500 commercial UASs to be navigating the homeland skies within the next five years, and as many as 30,000 within two decades. But that can’t happen without their approval of the aircraft and the ‘pilot,’ and thus far they’ve only authorized an obscure operation well away from the continental airspace corridors – above the Arctic Circle in Alaska – for environmental research before an oil company can begin drilling on the sea floor.

The FAA’s UAS integration strategy, or roadmap, issued in November 2013, was a year behind schedule, as was designation of six UAS test sites to study technological challenges impacting drone safety within US airspace.

It sometimes takes longer than any of us would like, and that’s certainly the case with me,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told a US Chamber of Commerce gathering. “Developing all the rules and standards we need is a very complex task, and we want to make sure we get it right the first time. We want to strike the right balance of requirements for UAS to help foster growth in an emerging industry with a wide range of potential uses, but also keep all airspace users and people on the ground safe.”

He hinted that some commercial uses of the systems could come “sooner than expected,” but the underwhelming pace thus far does not hold strong promise.

New drone rules will be spread across several years. The FAA roadmap is in three phases: “Accommodation,” “integration,” and “evolution.” The Administration hopes to have a certification process for civil UAS airframes, control systems, and propulsion, as well as requirements for pilots and crewmembers, in place by the end of this year. There’s also a 2017 deadline for certification of large and high-altitude unmanned aircraft. Full integration of unmanned aircraft sharing the skies with jetliners and fighter jets won’t occur until at least 2020.

Paul McDuffee, a VP at Boeing-owned UAS developer Insitu, complained, "We don't have the luxury of waiting another 20 years. This industry is exploding. It's getting to the point where it may end up happening with or without the FAA's blessing."

Potential operators are eager to launch drones for a range of transport and surveillance reasons, but they need to stay under the news and social media radar in order to operate. A local brewery in Minnesota was airlifting cases of beer to ice fisherman, but when the FAA noticed their YouTube video the beverage service was stopped. In Florida, the Washington Nationals (the FAA’s “hometown” baseball team) was told to ground its rotary drone, which had been used to take publicity photos. “No, we didn’t get it cleared, but we don’t get our ‘pop flies’ cleared either, and those go higher than this thing did,” groused an anonymous team official.

Other businesses eager to commence UAS flights include commercial photographers, real estate agents, florists, and movie directors. Martin Scorsese reportedly used a drone to film a scene in "The Wolf of Wall Street;" however, the FAA has denied permission to other film companies.

Online book and retail giant Amazon wants to use eight-rotor “octocopters” to deliver products, as an Australian company is already doing. “When I took this job, I never thought a Christmas gift from Brookstone could prove so provocative,” Huerta joked.

Farmers want to use drones to spread pesticides more efficiently, as their counterparts are doing in Japan. Cartographers want to enlist low-flying inexpensive drones to create 3D maps, as is being done in Switzerland. Facebook wants to station high-flying, solar-powered unmanned systems at 65,000ft to enable internet service for rural areas.

Robert Becklund, President of the Northern Plains Unmanned Systems Authority, said, once unleashed, commercial UAS use integration will spark an explosion of economic activity: “In addition to agricultural surveying, exploring areas affected by natural disasters and helping with search-and-rescue efforts, the safe integration of unmanned systems into the national airspace will lead to a wide variety of other commercial applications. Unmanned aircraft have the potential to be less expensive and more efficient than manned aircraft in many instances.”

The head of the FAA’s drone office, Jim Williams, lamented that writing rules for the US is “more complex” than for other nations because of the amount of air traffic and variety, ranging from military fighters to business jets to airliners to “old-fashioned barnstormers” (are there a lot of those in the airspace, I wonder?).
Huerta said using unmanned systems for agriculture offers “unique complications” in the US that are not true for countries like Japan. Rural areas where agricultural UAS uses would occur are also the areas with the most general aviation. The concern is that a small plane being flown by visual flight rules could collide with a smaller drone which is difficult to see. Sense-and-avoid solutions will be key to integrating rural unmanned commercial opportunities, Huerta said. The FAA also wants communication links that cannot be hacked and automated procedures for landing or self-destruction if a pilot loses control of a UAS.

UAS manufacturers are concerned the US will be one of the last countries to gain the economic benefits of the technology, and are frustrated with the FAA’s leisurely pace on commercial drone policy. For example, their roadmap does not anticipate adequate sense-and-avoid technologies for several years. However, sense-and-avoid systems and other technologies necessary for drones to operate safely around structures and other aircraft are ready to be installed, according to University of North Dakota (UND) engineering professor, William Semke. UND is both an FAA test site and a centre for drone research.

Several sense-and-avoid systems tested aboard university training aircraft were able to anticipate a possible collision, changing course without pilot input. UND has even developed its own avoidance technology, weighing less than a pound. “The biggest challenge is proving these technologies and having them accepted for wide use in aircraft,” said Semke.

Cameron Cloar, an aviation litigation attorney at San Francisco's Nixon Peabody, noted that drones “present new regulatory issues for the FAA that it's not had to deal with before.” New policies and procedures will need to be developed, not just for the UAS pilot sitting in an office building but also for those potentially impacted by his flight path – airplane pilots and air traffic controllers especially. Channel frequencies will need to be set aside for drone communications. Training will be required for all players.
Cloar suggested that commercial use of drones is far down the agency's list of priorities.

And then there’s the issue of privacy, which at one point the FAA seemed to ignore, but at least is requiring its test sites to adhere to federal, state, and other laws on individual privacy protection.

Ultimately, the privacy element of commercial UAS operations will need to be decided by American legislatures. That should present some interesting debates. US Senator Diane Feinstein, chair of the intelligence committee, a staunch proponent of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) controversial program of spying on all US citizens through phone, email, and social media intercepts, decided drones need to be regulated immediately when a protest group hovered a toy helicopter outside her residence window. “When is a drone picture a benefit to society? When does it become stalking? When does it invade privacy? How close to a home can a drone go?” Feinstein fumed.

Some residents of the state of Oregon are concerned that the first unmanned military aircraft to fly in civilian US airspace represents highly sophisticated surveillance, even though the Oregon Army National Guard claims the RQ7B SHADOW drones will only be used for combat training. Apparently unrelated, the Oregon House of Representatives passed a measure that requires law enforcement to get a warrant before using a drone to spy on a particular individual (yet allows police to forgo the warrant if they determine the situation constitutes a vaguely defined “emergency”).

In February, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Judge Patrick Geraghty ruled that the FAA has “no legal authority” over drones, noting that the agency had not followed any process to apply restrictions to the public. He ridiculed the FAA's broad assertion of power to regulate UASs, suggesting they could use the same arbitrary argument to block “a flight in the air of a paper aircraft, or a toy balsa wood glider.” The FAA, of course, immediately appealed the ruling to the US Court of Appeals, stating, “The agency is concerned that this decision could impact the safe operation of the national airspace system and the safety of people and property on the ground.”

The Mesa County Sheriff's Office (SO) obtained the 2lbs DRAGANFLYER X6 unmanned helicopter through a mutual agreement with Draganfly Innovations in the fall of 2009, for free. This unique partnership allowed the SO to navigate the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) process and test the potential law enforcement capabilities without extensive financial costs. By the fall of 2010, the SO had modified their Certificate of Authorisation (COA) agreement with the FAA to allow them to fly the UAS anywhere in Mesa County, CO, during daytime hours. (Photo: Mesa County Sheriff's Office)

NextGen Benefits Ill-Defined

The FAA does not do well with integration strategies, according to the DOT Inspector General. “The FAA has not clearly defined the benefits of key NextGen initiatives for enhancing capacity, reducing delays, and reducing operating costs. As a result, airspace users are skeptical about FAA’s ability to deliver the technologies and related benefits and remain reluctant to equip with costly NextGen technologies.”

Auditors cited the U$40 billion NextGen programme’s National Airspace Enterprise Architecture (EA) as being “limited as a strategic planning tool guiding air traffic control modernisation efforts.” The IG says the enterprise architecture “lacks consistency” and lacks a specific policy for establishing what constitutes high-priority critical junctures, or “decision points.”

FAA officials responded to the audit by saying that EA data elements are being added “that explicitly identify how and when a decision point will impact the delivery of NextGen products.”

Previous audit reports had focused on En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM), which the FAA refers to as heart of NextGen and “the pulse of the National Airspace System.” ERAM is millions of dollars over budget and may miss the deadline this year for going online.

Last year, DOT inspector general Calvin Scovel III warned the Performance Based Navigation (PBN) system, available at some airports, is not accompanied by clear direction on how to use it. Air traffic controllers have not been properly trained, do not have a handbook for the system, and cannot simultaneously work the old and new system efficiently. In addition, some of the systems cede more control to pilots, a step which has not been organised well enough to execute, Scovel said.

On the other hand, the first phase of the Data Communications (Data Comm) component is on track for 2016, according to Chad Geyer, National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) representative involved with the program. The second phase will deploy Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) to En Route ATC centers, beginning in 2019.

NextGen’s biggest challenge has always been funding – the infamous ‘Sequester’ implemented last year, for example – and this year is no different. The Obama Administration has proposed unexpected NextGen spending cuts of 7 per cent. “A $65 million cut to the NextGen programme’s funding from the current fiscal year poses new obstacles to meeting program milestones in the next several years,” said Marion Blakey, President and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA).

With each round of cuts, NextGen gets ‘reprioritised,’ requirements fall off the list or are reclassified as “enhancements,” and airlines become more reluctant to equip aircraft with new technologies which may not be used for years (if at all).

NextGen will happen, or at least parts of it will, though not as quickly as planned, nor as comprehensively. Like many Washington-generated programs, it will solve some of the problems while creating a few new ones.

Rick Adams is a regular contributor to MT.

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