Pilot Group Expresses Concern Over Sharing the Sky With Drones

August 20, 2013 - 5:09 PM

Everyday Drones

Insitu ScanEagle unmanned aircraft launched in Arlington, Ore.

(CNSNews.com) –  Aviation groups are questioning whether manned aircraft and remote-controlled drones can safely share the same airspace.

Last week, CNSNews.com quoted John Porcari, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, telling attendees at the August 14 Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Conference in Washington D.C. that “safety, not privacy, is the main priority of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regarding drones.”

Porcari was speaking about federal legislation passed by Congress in 2012 that will require the FAA to open the national airspace, currently restricted to manned aircraft, to military and commercial drones by September 30, 2015.

Although the drones will be remote-controlled by operators on the ground, aviation groups are concerned that they could compromise the safety of other aircraft.

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) is the collective bargaining representative for over 59,000 pilots employed by 39 U.S. and Canadian airlines. ALPA has issued a “White Paper on Unmanned Aircraft Systems” (UAS) that underscores the point that commercial aviation is pilot centric and that a well-trained, well qualified pilot remains the single most important safety component of any commercial aircraft. (See ALPA White Paper.pdf)

“The fundamental function of operating the aircraft in a safe manner must be maintained at the same level of safety regardless of the location of the pilot or the levels of automation,” the document asserts, adding that current Department of Defense UAS operations are neither designed nor operated to the same standards required for a commercial airliner.

In some instances, drone pilots are not required to have the same training and experience as military and commercial airline pilots, ALPA pointed out, adding that significant design and operational safety improvements must be made before UASes can safely share airspace with airliners carrying passengers, crew and cargo.

On March 4, an Alitalia pilot reported seeing a drone over Long Island while on approach to JFK International Airport. An FBI news release says the pilot told JFK controllers he had spotted a “drone aircraft” at 1,750 feet and said the unmanned drone came within 200 feet of the Alitalia plane as it prepared to land.

Officials of the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), the world’s largest recreational model aviation association, expressed concern over the incident. The AMA issued a statement saying  that its standards require that model aircraft not interfere with, and remain well clear of, manned aircraft. They also prohibit members from acting in a careless or reckless manner that would endanger the life or property of others.

The AMA added that what by all indications appeared to be a larger UAS hovering near the approach path of one of the country’s busiest airports was neither safe nor responsible, and a clear violation of AMA’s safety programming. The group said it does not condone the actions of the unknown drone operator.

CNSNews.com asked Rich Hanson, AMA’s government relations and regulatory affairs representative, about the current status of drone safety. “The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) welcomes the advent of unmanned aircraft. We believe these platforms will serve as a great benefit to our communities and our society as a whole,” he said.

“Of course, the safe operation of these aircraft is our primary concern. We understand that the FAA is currently developing regulations that will allow for the safe operation of small unmanned aircraft systems, and we’re hopeful that this will be accomplished and that integration of sUAS into the national airspace system will occur on or before the congressionally mandated deadline of September 30, 2015,” he added.

“Model aircraft have operated in the national airspace for well over 100 years and the AMA has provided safety guidelines for the recreational users since 1936,” Hanson said. “Over this time, model aircraft have achieved an exceptional safety record and have operated safely and harmoniously within our local communities. AMA stands ready to assist the FAA in educating the public on the safety aspects of UAS and will continue to provide safety guidelines for the recreational, personal and amateur UAS operators.”