Jan. 8, 2015

The New Year dawned without action by the FAA providing guidance for integrating small, unmanned aircraft systems (s-UAS) into the national airspace system (NAS). That leaves a burgeoning industry without clear direction on how to proceed toward adopting UAS for a variety of roles.

“The FAA continues to make strides toward safely integrating unmanned aircraft into the nation’s airspace system,” noted FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in a Jan. 2 blog post on the U.S. Department of Transportation website, adding that the agency “hopes to issue a rule for public comment very soon” regarding s-UAS.

Congress had originally mandated that the FAA have a plan in place to integrate UAS by September 2015, a timeline the agency will not meet. The FAA already missed its initial deadline to introduce a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) affecting the operation of s-UAS weighing under 55 pounds, stating at that time a draft notice would likely come by the end of 2014.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have expressed frustration with the slower-than-mandated rollout, stating their concerns in a December 2014 hearing before the House Aviation Subcommittee that lack of such guidelines may allow other countries to take the lead on UAS implementation.

Bob Lamond, NBAA director of air traffic services and infrastructure, was disappointed that the FAA missed a timetable that the agency had expressed confidence in during the December congressional hearing.

“Many NBAA Member Companies are eager to utilize UAS to support their businesses, so naturally NBAA supports efforts towards safely integrating this new tool for business aviation,” he said. “That said, we have always supported a deliberate approach with integrating all UAS operations into the NAS to ensure that safety is maintained. The last thing we want is for anyone to rush this key decision.”

With safety always the top priority, NBAA has long maintained that it is imperative that any introduction plan for UAS be thoughtful, deliberative and focused on safety. This means UAS should not share the same airspace with manned aircraft unless they meet the same certification and airworthiness standards, including the ability to take timely directions from air traffic control, and to sense and avoid other aircraft and UAS.

Additionally, NBAA opposes any steps taken in introducing the aircraft that would reduce or restrict access for manned business aviation aircraft to airspace or airports.

“It’s a delicate balance,” acknowledged NBAA Senior Manager for Security and Facilitation Sarah Wolf, who along with Lamond has participated in joint working groups tasked with developing guidelines for UAS integration and operation. “While we all would like to see where the FAA stands on the issue, I appreciate that the agency is obviously taking a thorough and measured approach towards getting this right,” she said.

NBAA has been involved in UAS working groups (through RTCA) since 2006.

Wolf also noted NBAA Members have shown increasing interest in UAS applications, including at two well-attended sessions devoted to the subject during the 2014 NBAA Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (NBAA2014). “We heard a lot of great questions during NBAA2014,” she said. “NBAA has been involved in this process for some time now. Above all, we want to make sure that airspace remains accessible to our Members. The easiest and quickest answer may not be best one.”

As the FAA continues to contemplate formal regulations affecting UAS operations, the agency has moved forward on granting limited exemptions for about a dozen companies to operate UAS in the filmmaking and construction industries, and to conduct oilrig flare inspections.