December 9, 2014

Regulation, Education, and Enforcement Needed for Safe Integration of UAS

The proliferation of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) has been a growing issue in the aviation industry, and experts tackled the issue during the “UAS and RPA Moving Forward in the NAS” panel at ALPA’s symposium Tuesday. The overall conclusion? UAS are here to stay, and a campaign of regulation, education, and enforcement is on tap to make sure our national air space (NAS) stays safe.

ALPA’s first vice president, Capt. Sean Cassidy, moderated a panel composed of Peggy Gilligan, associate administrator for aviation safety with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA); Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); Paul McDuffee, vice president of government relations for Insitu, a UAS manufacturer; and Mark McKinnon, partner at the law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge.

Panelists discussed three major components of UAS integration: safety, privacy, and the business need for the aircraft. While UAS are currently illegal in the NAS, the FAA granted a small number of exemptions, including movie production, precision agriculture, pipeline/power line inspection, and inspection of flare stacks.

Gilligan kicked off the discussion by stating emphatically, “We are confident that we can integrate this into the airspace system safely and efficiently.” She stated that the FAA is in the midst of a three-prong process of accommodation, integration, and evolution. The goal, she said, is that, “At some point in time . . . UAS are just like all other airplanes that operate in the system.”

A commercial pilot in the audience asked what the FAA was doing to ensure that the planes he pilots won’t be brought down by a “hunk of metal.” Gilligan emphasized educating the UAS pilots on the safety needs and mentioned that enforcement procedures will be in place as well. For example, many manufacturers now include safety information with all purchases that spell out restrictions on flying UAS.

Capt. Cassidy concurred, stating, “Safety is absolutely the first case that must be made. That’s our foundational message.” He repeated Gilligan’s use of the word “pilot,” reinforcing the idea that these are still piloted aircraft—just with the pilot in a different location. And McKinnon pointed out that any “near misses” today are actually by UAS that are breaking the law, reinforcing the need for education and codified enforcement procedures.

McDuffee spoke about how manufacturers approach safety. He very bluntly stated, “If there is a safety issue in any way, a business case will never close.” He emphasized detect-and-avoid technology, which he termed priority number one. He said the industry is working with the Department of Defense to come up with a safe and workable way to transition UAS through airspace, and hopes to have a draft within the next year. “I’m confident that we’ll come up with standards that are achievable and still fall into economic viability,” he said.

The ACLU’s Guliani raised privacy concerns, stating that while the ACLU is pro-technology in general, there are worries about privacy and data collection by UAS, including the prospect of private companies collecting data and providing it to the government. She suggested that any regulations should include restrictions on the use and storage of data.

In closing the panel, Capt. Cassidy rightly stated that this is “a discussion that’s not going to be over for a long, long time.” UAS are a part of the NAS going forward, and the need to safely integrate them is paramount.

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