Question: What Should the FAA Do About Small UAS?

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To answer today’s burning question—and burning is probably an understatement—you need to watch this video. It’s quite engaging. Click back when you’re done; I’ll wait.

So the question is, does the FAA have a compelling responsibility to protect the public from potential harm that could accrue from such filming using small UAVs? Should the agency prohibit or at the least regulate such activities?

The film in question is the much-celebrated Raphael Pirker video at the University of Virginia. The FAA enforced against Pirker and levied a $10,000 fine, claiming he violated FAR 91.13, the careless or reckless catchall. Although it wasn’t relevant to the official legal proceeding, the FAA’s 2007 policy statement that differentiated commercial use of small UAVs from model aircraft flying was often mentioned in news coverage. The FAA pointedly does not regulate model aircraft.

An NSTB administrative law judge invalidated the fine against Pirker and tossed the case, explaining that the FAA overreached and has no authority to regulate small UAVs, much less levy fines. Pirker’s lawyer, Brendan Schulman, points out that the 2007 FAA policy statement declaring commercial use of drones illegal has no weight, since the agency failed to follow its own stringent rulemaking process. The FAA has appealed the 91.13 jurisdictional portion of the case

But to hear Jim Williams tell it, the agency hasn’t been dissuaded from further enforcement in the slightest. Williams heads the FAA’s UAS office and he spoke this week before a crowd of industry manufacturers, operators and suppliers at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in Orlando. Williams said—rightly, I think—that small UAS represent some risk to the public. In support of his case, he showed a video of an incident in Virginia in which a quadricopter lost control and crashed into a crowd, injuring one person. It was unclear how seriously. He flashed another slide of an incident that occurred in March of this year when a USAirways regional jet on approach to Tallahassee reported a near-collision with a UAV of some type. No UAV was ever identified, nor was an operator found. Williams was speaking to a skeptical crowd and my guess is he wasn’t too convincing.

I tried to put on my objective journalist hat to decide whether those two incidents and a third one in Australia represent the clear and present danger that Williams claims requires the FAA to protect the unsuspecting public from wild-eyed drone operators. I remain profoundly unconvinced, while accepting his underlying notion that these systems do represent some risk to people and property on the ground and to manned aircraft.

Officially, the AUVSI (and the FAA) punts on the small UAS issue, referring to voluntary guidelines (PDF) published by the Academy of Model Aeronautics. AUVSI’s hard push is for integrating larger UAS into the national airspace safely and legally. For small UAS, it has been encouraging specific interests to negotiate directly with the FAA. These include the agriculture and film industries and companies that inspect power and pipelines. AUVSI is concerned that small UAS operators will go rogue and soil the entire industry with a bad rep, a legitimate worry.

Ignoring the FAA’s overreach, was Pirker in compliance with the published AMA guidelines? I’d say not entirely, but that doesn’t make his flight careless or reckless. He obtained permission from the university, prepped carefully to the extent of even closing streets and his aircraft was a small, light Styrofoam (aka a "foamie") design of minimal weight and injury-causing potential. I thought Williams disingenuously harmed his cred before the AUVSI audience by not mentioning any of this. Flying under a pedestrian bridge sounds insanely reckless, but with a five-pound Styrofoam model? Would it be just as reckless to toss a Frisbee through the same airspace? And the AMA guidelines could use some revisions to keep pace both with the technology and what operators are actually doing with these aircraft, including commercial potential.

As pilots, we most certainly have a dog in this fight. A veritable explosion of small, low-altitude unmanned aircraft is just over the horizon and irrespective of whether we want them buzzing around our neighborhoods, we have an interest in how they’re operated around airports. This is not something we can’t or shouldn’t be thinking about.

All technologies have a risk-reward ratio. I’m quite certain more people have been killed or injured in cellphone-related traffic accidents just this week than have ever been or are ever likely to be injured by small camera drones. Cellphones have clear benefits; UAS camera platforms do, too, albeit not nearly as pervasive. At least so far. Part of the FAA’s job is to protect the public from unreasonable risk from things that fly. It is not to construct an impenetrable womb around every living man, woman and child. And that’s another way of saying we live in a world in which the unsuspecting and uninvolved public can’t be protected against every conceivable risk, whether outdoors, at schools, sporting events or in the mall parking lot. That’s the price of progress; get used to it.

If I learned anything at the AUVSI event, it’s this: many of us in general aviation are clueless about the extent of what’s coming. We need to have opinions on this.

What’s yours?

Join the conversation.
Read others' comments and add your own.

Comments (43)

Small-scale UAVs are just the tip of the iceberg of what's coming. It won't be for long that there will be full-size aircraft capable of semi-to-fully-autonomous operations, and without some regulations as guidance the outcome doesn't look too good for either side. Maybe some in the FAA who want to fight the future think by delaying any regulations they will delay UAVs from flying, but it really just means there will be more companies/individuals going rogue.

I think ultimately there can be a great benefit from UAVs of all sizes, but also that it doesn't necessarily mean the end of manned aircraft.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | May 15, 2014 11:31 AM    Report this comment

If the FAA had been around when the Wright Brothers first flew, America would not have had any aircraft until WW2.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | May 15, 2014 11:56 AM    Report this comment

When I saw the video I thought, "yeah that looks pretty careless and dangerous to bystanders". But then you point out that the pilot had gotten the permissions from the university and taken other precautions and my next thought was that the judge was way too lenient with the FAA. He should have fined the FAA $10,000 payable to Pirker! And I totally agree that it was more than an oversight on the FAA Jim William's part that he forgot to mention that in the conference; downright sneeky actually.

Heavier (say above the weight of a big goose), high altitude drones mixing it up with airplane traffic and flying over heavily populated areas will need some oversight. The operators should at least demonstrate a knowledge of the rules with a written test and some sort of transponder, or other traffic avoidance device, for the drone. The small ones under 500' (or 400' as it may be), whether commercial or not, should be left to local authorities if they make a nuisance of themselves; the FAA should butt out.

Posted by: Stephen Phoenix | May 15, 2014 12:18 PM    Report this comment

If the FAA can enforce Regulations that don't exist against Pirker and then levy a fine, then WE -- as aviators and airspace users -- ought to be able to sue the FAA for lack of leadership, vision, proactivity as well as failure to act in a timely manner on all manner of issues that THEY are failing to manage ... vur should. What's good for the goose is also good for the gander.

I've read the original Pirker indictment and decision and -- for once -- an Administrative law judge acted correctly in throwing the matter out with prejudice. I just read the FAA's appeal and must say that Mr. Schulman's logic is -- once again -- spot on. Hopefully, they will lose again. If not, all IS lost.

The FAA is a quasi-independent Regulatory Agency acting to enact, enforce and ultimately levy fines against those it deems in arrears of its Regulations. NOW, it thinks it doesn't have to even write the Regulations. Not only have they done this to Trappy, they tried to do it to ALL of us with the sleep apnea thing. They have a process to follow enacting new Regulations and then ignore it. Sounds like a lawsuit to me!

It's time for the FAA to lead, follow or -- at least -- get out of the way. Apparently they want to establish still another "AIR-something" with still another sub-bureaucracy filled with lawyers and senior executive schedule GS employees to manage it all. It won't be long until there'll be more FAA employees than active pilots or in-license airplanes !!

Paul, the arguments you present ARE valid. Still, what harm was done by this obviously model airplane flight? None. I wish the FAA would grow up and start trying to act PROACTIVELY instead of reactively and punatively.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | May 15, 2014 12:35 PM    Report this comment

Thinking about it some more, the FAA ought to establish still another new embedded bureaucracy ... maybe something like AIR-UAS. All operators of unmanned air systems would have to possess a private drone operators license for anything but the very lightest systems (foamies) where a light sport drone operators certificate might suffice. Operators in commercial ops would have to possess higher level drone certificates. Operators who might fly UAV's without a camera providing visual feedback and out of eyesight of the operator would have to possess a UAV instrument rating allowing them to fly solely by reference to a GPS position screen.

Since most small and all larger unmanned systems use digital control technology, the FAA could require an extra number of digital bits in the control stream to contain the operator's ID. All operators would have to be tested to ensure that they meet all the standards in new drone PTS'. Since ADS-B uses very small WAAS GPS sensors, perhaps all drones might have to have a sort of 'mini' ADS-B system contained any time they wanted to fly above -- say -- 400 feet. That way, the FAA would know who is flying and what is flying.

In order to ensure that all drones have been inspected, they'll have to be registered. And, since the drones might be frequently sold, re-registration every three years would be required.

Geosynchronous satellites orbiting overhead would "sniff" the UAV's control signals with operator ID and relay them to the nearest ADS-B outlet where it would be routed to the ATC center nearby. In this way, the FAA could monitor each and every UAV flying, who is flying it AND maybe even invoke autoland commands IF its computers detected anything out of the ordinary. A software routine could accomplish that easily. It wouldn't add much to the cost of a new Parrott or other nifty drones.

Anyone operating a UAV without a proper license could be fined electronically and maybe the amount could be automatically deducted from their bank accounts. Drones that didn't use solar or wind power (green sources) might have to pay a surcharge which could -- likewise -- be deducted from the operators bank accounts. Non-electric drones might have to be charged higher operations rates because they aren't as green.

Of course, the FCC would have to license the RF bit streams and the NTSB would have to establish still another embedded bureaucracy, as well. Accidents WILL happen, ya know.

Yeah ... novel idea ... and maybe the FAA could even accomplish this task prior to -- say -- 2030?

Sorry, Paul ... I HAD to do this ! :-) Watching the Pirker video after reading the latest FAA/Pirker appeal made me crazy!

Posted by: Larry Stencel | May 15, 2014 4:55 PM    Report this comment

No apologies necessary. You've outdone yourself in creativity.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 15, 2014 5:06 PM    Report this comment

I am TERRIFIED of drones (I refuse to use the UAS euphemism). I have already seen my first drone air-to-air (and reported it). The day is coming when the first man-carrying aircraft wil be brought down by colliding with a drone. I have hit many a bird and while I have usually seen the bird prior to impact, avoiding it is often impossible, especially at jet speeds. Many drones are as small and hard to see as birds.
The FAA absolutely MUST get off its lard and publish regulations to deal with the drone threat. Drones definitely DO have a legitimate role to play in the national airspace system and economy, but it must be done carefully and by people who actually understand the airspace they are sharing and operating machinery in and who have have accountability if they fail or cause personal or property damage with their operation. They may not have physical "skin in the game" like we manned aircraft pilots do but that does not mean they can be allowed to get away with murder.
Terrorism? That's a whole different question.

Posted by: Neil Robinson | May 15, 2014 6:50 PM    Report this comment

"many of us in general aviation are clueless about the extent of what's coming. We need to have opinions on this."

I'm probably one of them. I can see dragonfly-size and smaller UAVs entering ladies rooms, private business meetings, my car, home, backyard or computer room to 'see' the numbers I type for bills - the possibilities are truly endless. The flap over Donald Sterling is just a glimpse into the privacy issues coming.

And I can see a baseball, aircraft or water stream from a hose knocking these things, injuring and killing people and causing lawsuits galore. Progress? Most people haven't caught up with the discipline and discrimination of cellphone abuse. The saying, 'Oh, to be a fly on the wall' will have an entirely new meaning and reality.

I hope the FAA can keep up with this madness around our airports, at least. I'm also glad, for the moment, that I happen to live in the American SW, maybe I can fly for a few miles without such worry. But I'm not counting on it.

Posted by: David Miller | May 15, 2014 7:06 PM    Report this comment

Larry, great plan for AIR-UAS, but you forgot one thing: "user fees for UAVs"!

Posted by: A Richie | May 16, 2014 9:09 AM    Report this comment

As one person wrote, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The flying we know will be greatly impacted by the UAV. This is BAD NEWS for General Aviation flying. The military will be able to work around it. The airlines will have regulations protecting their airspace. The greatest negative impact will be on the rest of us who have to share airspace with (or lose airspace to) unmanned aircraft. We will look back and long for the days before UAVs made flying more dangerous, more difficult and more restricted for us. This will not be a good thing...regardless of all the empty promises now.

Posted by: EDWARD COLE | May 16, 2014 9:10 AM    Report this comment

There will be mid-airs with drones, too. The drone operators will feel bad as they go get a cup of coffee. But, they'll chalk it up to "the cost of doing business." This will take on a life of its own...and it won't be pretty... This is one time that we should hope for strenuous restrictions, regulations and heavy fines from the FAA toward the UAV and their operators... But they still won't have any "skin in the game."

Posted by: EDWARD COLE | May 16, 2014 9:16 AM    Report this comment

I was pretty much drone-neutral until I saw the Pirker video. I can just imagine being in a town with swarms of drones, flown by people with varying degrees of skill and intent. That video brought to mind aerial skateboarders texting with one hand and controlling (sort of) a drone with the other. One may well need a Kevlar umbrella. The drones are coming; the FAA is only one of any number of federal, state and local agencies that are going to be involved with handling the fallout.

Posted by: Richard Montague | May 16, 2014 10:57 AM    Report this comment

As a helicopter pilot in the aerial news gathering business I can foresee small UAVs operating in the same airspace as I do. For this reason alone I feel that regulation cannot come soon enough. Certainly sense-and-avoid technology should be in place before any commercial UAV operations are allowed where they may be in close proximity to manned aircraft. Small UAVs have already been used to cover news stories and, although the FAA is "looking into" these operations, the presence of small UAVs is a clear obstacle to safe flight operations by manned aircraft in the often congested airspace over a major news event. A question that occurs to me is: what happens when a UAV operator enters and operates within a TFR set up for fire, police activity, national security or disaster relief? My initial read of the Pirker decision is that such an act, which would be a violation of FARs for me, may not even be actionable in many cases for a UAV operator. This would place me at a definite disadvantage from a business standpoint, but that issue is rather unimportant compared to the obvious safety implications.

Posted by: Neal Lawson | May 16, 2014 11:52 AM    Report this comment

In light of all of the "drone hysteria" exhibited in this space (and in others), I feel compelled to ask: shall the FAA also regulate the flight of birds, bats, and insects? There are trillions of them aloft at any given time, and somehow we manage to survive without the omniscient intervention of a government agency. Amazing.

Note to all: for flight above 400 feet AGL, and/or within 5 miles of an airport, onboard sense-and-avoid technology can be required. ADS-B can be required. The vast bulk of these things are going to be fully autonomous, anyway, so the paranoids among us can get right past the "licensed UAV pilots" paradigm. The things can be programmed (by their manufacturers) to always follow all of the rules. If only human pilots could be programmed to do that...........

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | May 16, 2014 1:08 PM    Report this comment

" I feel compelled to ask: shall the FAA also regulate the flight of birds, bats, and insects? "

Probably will depend on how successful the The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will be. It has begun to develop a Micro-Electro-Mechanical System (MEMS) for the manipulation of insects into "cyborgs." Through genetic engineering, they are aiming to control the movement of insects and utilize them for surveillance purposes.

Nothing was mentioned, however, about human programming.

Posted by: David Miller | May 16, 2014 2:31 PM    Report this comment

I posted this in the previous blog, but here it is again:

Aerial Cameras - This term is being used in a rapidly growing business environment. I've not heard the words drone or UAV used. There are many new businesses operating in SoCal that will sell these to anyone, and also build custom devices, depending on a customer's needs. I have one, and they are great fun.

The one I bought comes as a complete package, an electric quad-copter with wireless operated camera, either HD video or 14 Mp stills. It is remarkable what can be built with a few hundred bucks of modern electronic gear. The flight system has inputs from GPS, compass, altimeter, and inertial motion sensors. You can position it in the air at an altitude in excess of 1,500' and it will keep itself at that location, to quite close tolerances, regardless crosswinds, etc. It is capable of 25 minutes of flight time, then you can slip in another battery and go back up. If you do not pay attention to time, the flight system will automatically fly itself home to its take-off location when the battery drops to a low limit. If the flight system loses contact with the controlling transmitter it will fly itself home. The response of the flight system to loss of signal is well thought out. It puts itself into a hover, climbs 60 meters, flys at whatever altitude that is, to the home location, lowers itself vertically to 10 feet height and waits there for about a minute. If signal is not re-acquired, it slowly lowers itself and shuts the motors off when it contacts the ground. Very cool. Better than the autopilot in my plane.

Meanwhile, I can see what the camera sees on an iPhone or any number of tablets. I can change camera modes and activate filming or still shots. The screen also shows me the altitude, airspeed, battery condition, an attitude indicator and the number of GPS satellites accessed (needs 6).

With only 4 rotors, my platform cannot cope with the total loss of one motor but will try to get itself home with a partial loss. Hex rotors can, and do, cope with the loss of 2 motors.

The FAA is way behind what is going on in the real world now, and if it takes until 2020 to have regulations, it will be dealing with systems that have not yet been invented. Good luck with that.

And, I should add that if you lose your system in the woods or someplace, the system will send out its GPS coordinates until the battery dies, probably several months. You can locate the system with the iPhone map App, and go find it. Better than some airliners ;-(

Posted by: Edd Weninger | May 16, 2014 3:36 PM    Report this comment

With all respect to Mr. Thomas Yarsley, I fail to see much "drone hysteria" in these posts. I do see an honest concern for safe flight operations and a desire to ensure that all reasonable precautions, both regulatory and voluntary, be taken by all involved.

Please allow me to postulate the following: A wildfire burning near a major metropolitan area. A TFR posted to secure the airspace for use by firefighting aircraft, both fixed wing and helicopters, all operating, at times, well below 400' AGL. A small UAV operator determined to get some great video that he can sell to a local news station and certain that he is protected by the NTSB judge's determination that his small UAV is not an "aircraft" and so cannot be regulated by the FAA.

Is it possible that in such a scenario there could be a collision between the UAV and a manned aircraft that simply could not see it? Absolutely. Is it probable? Perhaps. Is it necessary to consider the possibility and form regulations and/or procedures that could reduce or eliminate the danger? Unquestionably.

Posted by: Neal Lawson | May 16, 2014 4:08 PM    Report this comment

Doubtless there will be a need for some targeted regulations as these things proliferate. At the moment, though, I can't see any urgent need for panic or knee-jerk, poorly thought out action. After all, kites, free balloons & RC and free-flight models, some of very substantial size, have been flying for decades, and how many piloted aircraft have been brought down by them?

It's not like there are NO rules or laws covering the subject. If you endanger or harm others while doing something, there doesn't have to be a specific rule covering your activity. If, for example, someone is flying an RC model or UAV (or kite) around or in an approach or departure path there are general statutes which can be used to stop it. Yes, having a specific rule can make the process easier, but it isn't necessary to have one if the person is REALLY causing an unsafe condition (not just annoying you, for example flying a camera UAV in a national park).

Posted by: John Wilson | May 16, 2014 6:05 PM    Report this comment

Mr. Lawson:

Human-operated UAVs always will be a threat to comprise danger, because humans routinely break the law. Regulations do little to nothing to stop this. Autonomous aircraft, however, can be programmed to follow all rules to the letter. In your offered example, if the FAA established a TFR over the scene of a fire, the UAVs could be apprised of this information automatically (ADS-B in link) and thus would remain clear of the proscribed area - regardless of the desires of their operators. This is not rocket science. It's simply what good regulations will require. What are the chances that the FAA will understand that?

And a flock of birds represents a greater threat to an aircraft than does a small UAV. Billions of birds are airborne at any given moment. Occasionally, they park an Airbus in the Hudson. But for the most part, we deal with them without a lot of "assistance" from the government.

Attempting to regulate UAVs as if they were manned aircraft is a fool's errand. New technology requires a new paradigm. As for a local example of hysteria, check Neil Robinson's post above. If every man, woman, child, and baby in America operated a UAV, the entire fleet would be dwarfed by the existing population of birds, bats, etc. Those birds that brought down that Airbus paid no mind to the FARs - did they? A UAV can be taught the rules. Geese can't even be taught not to shit on our local golf course. One of them took out the windshield on our 601P, careened through the cabin, and dented the aft pressure bulkhead. Only dumb shit luck saved the day. I'd rather take my chances with a UAV that's following the rules, and actively avoiding me, any day.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | May 16, 2014 6:27 PM    Report this comment

I believe any discussion on the subject of UAVs should be prefaced with what size UAV we're talking about. The small-sized UAVs that are comparable to model aircraft probably don't need to be regulated for private use, and only minimally for commercial use (to ensure fairness around TFRs/etc where manned aircraft wouldn't be allowed to go). Just keep them away from areas that model aircraft are advised to stay away from. It's really the larger-sized UAVs with the potential to cause more than minor damage in a mid-air that need to be regulated.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | May 16, 2014 7:03 PM    Report this comment

It will be important to manage model aircraft and most UAVs differently from those UAVs permitted to mix it up in the National Airspace System with manned aircraft.

For the former (let's call them "unregulated UAVs"), limit UAV operations to less than 400 feet AGL, and 3 miles or so from airports so they stay clear of manned aircraft flying approaches. Then have them regulated only by states and local governments for privacy or public safety. They however should NOT be regulated by the FAA.

For the latter, UAVs will need to be regulated by the FAA and have sophisticated enough technology for "sense and avoid." Rather being prescriptive about the use of particular technologies, the FAA regs should be sufficiently broad for users to implement whatever modern technological solutions will keep UAVs from colliding with existing aircraft -- including no-radio Cubs flying without transponders (this may require radar or sophisticated optical sensing). But the FAA will need to set performance standards with the burden of proof on UAV operators that their aircraft meet these standards. And because these UAVs will operate in the NAS, pilot licenses should be required.

Posted by: DAVE PASSMORE | May 16, 2014 7:52 PM    Report this comment

"And because these UAVs will operate in the NAS, pilot licenses should be required."

In the case of autonomous aircraft, who would be licensed? The flight dispatcher? HAL? None of that would require a traditional pilot's license, nor the training regimen required to certificate traditional pilots. A steamboat captain's license would be equally appropriate. UAV's really require more of an operator's permit, if you insist. Model aircraft operators don't need to be pilots, and multi-thousand-hour pilots typically crash an RC airplane on their first flight. Experienced RC operators who are not pilots typically fare even worse than total newbies when they start taking flying lessons (too many inapplicable habits to un-learn). The skillsets have remarkably little in common. You could quiz UAV operators about the rules (when the agency finally writes some), but it would be far more effective to just program the vehicles to follow the rules without "help" from the human operators.

As for regulating the purposes-of-flight of ANY aircraft, manned or unmanned, good luck with that one. One man's innocent sightseeing flight is someone else's sinister voyeurism. The FAA needs to stick to safety - not to the "appropriateness" of any given flight.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | May 16, 2014 10:13 PM    Report this comment

As regards Mr. Yarsley's assertion that small drones are no more hazardous to manned aircraft than birds, consider that birds are not made of hard materials like metal and therefore might be, and in my case, recently have been, "processed" by an aircraft engine with comparatively little damage. If those same birds had been a drone with metal in them, it certainly would have knocked out one of our engines.
In addition, my observation is that birds try strenuously to avoid approaching aircraft they have perceived (with sensory apparatus much superior to current drone equipment), and we still occasionally process them.
Make no mistake, drones are a hazard to manned aircraft and their level of threat is proportional to the square of the drone pilot's ignorance. For example, one of the incidents recently cited involved a drone (or RC) aircraft painted in a camouflage scheme. If you're going to operate a drone in public airspace, at least paint it day-glow orange or chartreuse.

Posted by: Neil Robinson | May 17, 2014 1:44 AM    Report this comment

The hazards that airborne objects pose to manned vehicles can be quantified by considering two variables: 1 - the likelihood that a collision will occur, and 2 - the consequences of a collision. Variable #1 is affected by lots of factors, but without considering any schemes that would attempt to reduce the likelihood, the incidence of collisions is affected most directly by the density of the participants - the more vehicles you pour into a given chunk of airspace, the greater the likelihood of a collision.

Mr. Robinson has claimed that he is "terrified of drones." He went on to qualify his terror, by concentrating on variable #2 (the consequences of a collision), by asserting that an aircraft engine can ingest a bird and suffer "comparatively little damage" (Airbus might disagree), but "certainly" would be put out of service by an encounter with a UAV made of "hard materials."

I could offer a discussion about the "hardness" of foam insulation when it impacts a vehicle at high speed (nee Columbia). I could offer a discussion about the "hardness" of birds that are tossed into jet engines in test stands. Consider the "hardness" of water in a swimming pool during a belly-flop.

But the point I'm trying to make is that the contributing value of variable #1 (the likelihood of collision) is orders of magnitude higher with birds and bats than it is or ever will be with UAVs.

And although I actually did not assert that "small drones are no more hazardous to manned aircraft than birds," it's the total risk (accounting for both variables) that needs to be analyzed.

It would be easy to decree that small UAVs be restricted to flight in airspace that's routinely avoided by manned vehicles (below 400 feet AGL; no closer than 5 miles to an airport). The vehicles' software could enforce the decree. Flight outside of such airspace could require equipage with full-up ADS-B - again, enforced by the software.

As for dayglo orange drones, while I can't object to that, I have to ask: what human pilot is going to see and avoid a bird-size drone of any color? For that matter, what human pilot is capable of seeing and avoiding a bird in flight? Thank goodness for those diligent birds that "try strenuously to avoid approaching aircraft they have perceived (with sensory apparatus much superior to current drone equipment)." But even the almighty FAA won't get birds to self-equip with ADS-B. UAVs, on the other hand......

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | May 18, 2014 6:24 PM    Report this comment

What makes you think that the average drone pilot operating a paparatzi camera or chasing a criminal will know whether there is an airport within 3 miles? Or care if there is?
Just look at what a small percentage of reporters posess even the simplest understanding of aviation, as demonstrated in their writing
What scares me is the ignorance of the wider population who might be offered their firstm opportunity to participate in airborne activities of any kind but with no education to understand the environment they're operating in.
And yes, bird sized objects can indeed bring down aircraft large and small. The likelyhood of this happening by a drone is enhanced by the fact that drone operators will want to fly where people are (cities) and that is also where you find airplanes. So while the population of drones will not reach that of birds, their operating patterns, locations and hardness will make them a much larger pro-rata threat than birds.
I also suspect that most small drones will not be required to be equipped with ADS-B. It's too costly and the drone industry will lobby the FAA for exemptions.

Posted by: Neil Robinson | May 19, 2014 12:55 AM    Report this comment

My goodness, for a group of people that should have a pretty good degree of critical and logical thinking, y'all are getting quite emotional about this topic. I'll preface my words by saying I am both a private pilot (inactive) and one who flies RC aircraft for fun.

As pilots we deride the FAA for "over regulating" our activities. We can't do this, we can't do that, and by God I remember the days when we could fly blindfolded into a storm with our open cockpit clothy egg beater and that was my God given choice. What happen to y'all?

It is like y'all drank some koolaid or listened to the wrong people to the point where now all you see are the unfriendly skies filled with evil robot drones. Save us FAA, you're our only hope. Let us find some perspective here, starting with the notion that Life is dangerous, we cannot protect ourselves from everything.

Drones, UAV, RC models, whatever you call them are not swarming like locus, we will not see an Army of them forming up to take down airplanes and as another pointed out, bird strikes are and will continue to be more prevalent. Don't go screaming for regulations against flying objects while in the same breath screaming that the FAA is taking away our rights to fly. It just makes y'all sound a little unstable and I'd prefer pilots not come across that way.

I don't mind the FAA taking a look at the overall issue, I think coming up with classifications first may help. Right now is my RC Piper Archer with 36" wing span the same thing as some "UAV" with more mass and power? Is a quad copter with programmable flight aspects the same as programed, unmanned, fix wing aircraft? According to the FAA and some of you guys, they are all the same. I figure they are not and when we first establish valid classifications, then we can look at regulations. Though I have a PPL, I think it crazy to require my brother-in-law to have license or take a test to flight his assortment of RC planes. He flies better than me.

We get one unsubstantiated report of a commercial flight passing by some "object" and we go "Oh My God we're going to die (some day)". No, we still have more worries from human pilots hitting other human pilots (see glider crash) then drones or UFOs. Don't open the hen house door to the Fox just yet.

Posted by: Justin Hull | May 19, 2014 8:44 AM    Report this comment

Mr. Robinson:

You're arguing against your own unsupported presumptions. You want stringent regulation, but you insist that "drone pilots" will ignore the regulations. You simply can't have it both ways.

For the sake of argument, let's presume that a regulatory difference between "RC model aircraft" and UAVs endures after the agency issues its long-promised rules. The RC models have been in operation for decades; apparently they're an acceptable risk to the rest of aviation, because the FAA has maintained a hands-off attitude about them.

That leaves the new UAVs. How will they differ from RC models? Well, some (perhaps most or all; the FAA will get to choose) will be capable of autonomous flight. For these aircraft, rules-compliance can (and should) be software-based. No need to worry about wild-eyed rules-breakers. In this regard, such UAVs would be far safer than the apparently harmless RC models that we've endured for decades.

It's all up to the FAA.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | May 19, 2014 9:37 AM    Report this comment

Thomas, you may be overstating the flight autonomy concept a little. Because of the way small UAVs are used, it's better to think of them as flying cameras rather than flying machines that happen to have cameras.

While many of them are capable of autonomous flight, the operators I spoke to told me remote piloting is the operational mode of choice because they're usually trying to inspect or survey something. In other words, they want to point the camera at things they may or may not know are there.

They also seem to tilt strongly toward direct sight flying. In other words, they can see the UAV as they fly it. Obviously, for the FPV flyers, it's different. They're in the UAV, virtually. (See the Pirker video.) Different problem.

I interviewed the General Atomics engineer after his presentation on due regard radar and it's quite clear they envision RPA as the preferred mode for the short term future for NAS flying. Autonomy is the second choice, usually in cases of link loss. They want the operator to be able to sense and avoid what's around the UAV, then pilot accordingly.

I think you're right about the risk being small to manned aircraft. It's not zero risk, but small risk. I'm not at all terrified by any of this. I'm actually intensely curious about what's going to happen.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 19, 2014 1:16 PM    Report this comment

I'm aware of at least one entertainer who uses a DJI quadcopter drone (or a flying camera platform, if you wish) to capture video of the crowd tailgating before the gates of the venue are open. I doubt the operators are conforming to AMA guidelines, if they even are aware that they exist! I don't know if they fly FPV, line of sight, or both. I also don't know whether they use blade guards, but as has been mentioned, quads are incapable of controlled flight with the loss of one motor. I cringe at the thought of an unguarded rotorcraft nosediving into a croud of inebriated revelers.

A problem I see with "sense & avoid" using currently adopted technology, is that the operator only has LOS or FPV. There is no peripheral vision available, so something would need to be adopted, either by concensus or mandate to allow them to be operated in the NAS.

That said, I think it's possible to use them safely below a certain altitude, especially in Echo & Golf airspace and I don't intend to wait until 2020 for the FAA to get it's actt together. I don't think I can legally fly mine at my home which is in Delta AS, but as yet, I haven't exceeded 100' AGL with my little Blade copter.

Posted by: Jim Thomas | May 20, 2014 5:41 AM    Report this comment

If you want to learn how these things are being used, poke around the Go-Pro website for the various videos-of-the-day. Many taken with aerial cameras.

There are many flown in close proximity to people, in many places and sometimes very high.

The safety factor is entirely within the head of the user. They don't want to blow the cost of these things (although I did see a rouge video where some guys were using a quad as a target for shotgun shooting). I'm sure most are not aware of any airspace restrictions.

I was surprised that Paul reported the French quad camera in his previous blog as a breakthrough technology. There was nothing new there that hasn't been around for ~2 years, designed, programmed, built and sold world-wide from China.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | May 20, 2014 10:00 AM    Report this comment

Correct me if I'm wrong here, Edd, but the breakthrough was explained as electronically stabilized live streaming video that plays on an iPad at consumer-type prices. None of the Chinese drones I've seen do that, I don't think, although they are controllable by a smartphone.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 20, 2014 11:12 AM    Report this comment

In response to the title of this piece (Question: What Should the FAA Do About Small UAS?), I assert that: 1 - this is entirely new ground for them, so they can do pretty much anything they want to do, and; 2 - the best way to regulate UAVs (and RC model aircraft) is to define the airspace in which they can be operated, based upon the degree of autonomous capability possessed by the various vehicles.

Any vehicle that has ADS-B capabilities, radar/lidar "vision," and considerable maneuverability will have an anti-collision capability that exceeds that of anything short of a front-line fighter aircraft. Greater autonomy would result in greater rules-compliance, which - in theory - would result in increased safety (the theory relying on the proposition that adherence to rules increases safety - which is the FAA's paradigmatic assertion).

Simple vehicles and human-directed "browsing" operations both would be restricted to flight in low-hazard airspace. Meanwhile, sophisticated vehicles could operate in airspace that's co-inhabited by traditional aircraft - with the applicable rules enforced by built-in software.

It matters not at all that many of today's vehicles currently don't comply with that paradigm - after all, there are no rules with which to comply. If the FAA gets the rules right, then non-compliant "legacy" vehicles will be restricted to operations consistent with those outlined for RC model aircraft. Again, if such operations comprised a significant hazard, the FAA would have established rules for them long ago. The absence of such rules comprises convincing evidence that the agency does not see them as a significant threat, so the operation of lesser-capable UAVs as if they were simple RC models wouldn't increase the level of threat, except to the extent that the newer stuff may prove to be more popular than traditional RC models; more vehicles in the air = greater chance of collisions among the RC traffic.

A typical mission profile might involve an autonomous flight from departure to destination, followed by a human-directed browsing interval (in non-hazard airspace, where the UAV has confirmed that VFR conditions exist), followed by an autonomous return-to-base leg. All emergencies would be dealt with autonomously; the vehicle could report its location during/after an emergency landing.

None of this is rocket science, and it will work in vehicles ranging from the size of a bumble bee to that of a C-5. I know that many pilots feel threatened by the idea of an autonomous Skyhawk ferrying non-pilot occupants from point A to point B. But addressing their fears with silly claims that "it can't be done safely" just puts them in an increasingly-Luddite cabal of technology-deniers.

It can be done safely, and it WILL be done safely. As a parting shot, let me remind all of the "real pilots" out there that the general public is mortified ("terrified?") of the thought that all of those dangerous little airplanes are allowed to use the same airspace that is used by "real airplanes" - i.e. airliners. How could the FAA negligently allow such obviously unsafe operations to take place? They need to keep all of those dangerous little airplanes away from airline airports, and keep them below 3,000 feet AGL at all times.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | May 20, 2014 12:22 PM    Report this comment

I would really prefer that commercial activity not be an issue in drone or manned aircraft operations. Do you really care if the plane that hits you was flying for fun or cash? I don't.

Damage capacity to aircraft is what I want tested and regulated for UASs.

There are certificates you can get to show you know how to find an airport and understand air traffic. You shouldn't fly one of these things without one. Otherwise, somebody else is going to end up in the Hudson. Yes, we need a new cert for these pilots. They are pilots.

Manufacturers should be tested for their ability to pay the damages in an air to air disaster until some training and certification regime is in place. If Cessna has to pay for bad pilots, these guys are responsible for untrained ones too, no? Then maybe we can get a relook at the lack of limits on joint and several silliness.

While I am for this new industry to get treated better than we have, I really want this to be an opportunity for us to get treated more reasonably as well. I really tire of bad ATC policy increasing my risk, and other bad policies hurting my net worth. Frankly, I am willing to admit that I won't be happy if these guys get to skirt the system that has been giving me frustration for years.

I am completely unwilling to accept that after all the work and expense I have had to prove worthy of using my rights to the sky, I should have to worry about adolescents killing me in order to fill more space on You Tube servers. If that's not charitable of me, too bad.

Posted by: Eric Warren | May 20, 2014 8:45 PM    Report this comment

One more thing. These craft should not be treated as models the second they stop operating using traditional R/C controllers. That should be a demarcation the FAA should jump on immediately.

Posted by: Eric Warren | May 20, 2014 8:48 PM    Report this comment

without proper knowledge of airspace, regulations, navigation, and what pilots are actually doing up there how can we allow these 'arm-chair pilots' into our airspace?
I believe that at a minimum they should have a current 'sport pilot' certificate!

Posted by: RW speer | May 21, 2014 8:58 AM    Report this comment

Whether or not a UAV is commercial should not be the determining factor.
I have no problem with a small under 5 or 10 pound UAV used in the same way as RC planes are now. After all what is the difference? There is none. RC helos and planes have been around for a long time with few or no ill effects.
Putting a camera on the vehicle doesn't change anything.
My major concern as a GA pilot is use near airports. By anything!
Now when we start addressing large UAV's that is a different matter. Here again following the RC rules should work fine for the vast majority. 400' and under and permission to overfly private property or crowds, events etc.
Large UAV's should be regulated, registered and flight plans filed when they exceed the recreational RC standards.
At least it sounds simple to me. K.I.S.S.

Posted by: Jeff Grigg | May 21, 2014 9:09 AM    Report this comment

FAA restrictions and regulation will come about as they always have. Something bad will happen the public will become aroused and politicians will call for regulation and the NTSB & FAA will respond. Will this be one death or several or significant property damage, or maybe you believe that nothing significant will occur to arouse the public, or perhaps the politicians will weigh the value of UAVs against public concern and come down on the UAV are worth the cost?

Posted by: WILLIAM WRIGHT | May 21, 2014 11:15 AM    Report this comment

FAA restrictions and regulation will come about as they always have. Something bad will happen the public will become aroused and politicians will call for regulation and the NTSB & FAA will respond. Will this be one death or several or significant property damage, or maybe you believe that nothing significant will occur to arouse the public, or perhaps the politicians will weigh the value of UAVs against public concern and come down on the UAV are worth the cost?

Posted by: WILLIAM WRIGHT | May 21, 2014 11:15 AM    Report this comment

"Putting a camera on the vehicle doesn't change anything."

Actually, I think it changes everything. These man-operated cameras are being used by a totally different group of people than the usual RC flyers.

RC flyers are pretty much structured and controlled by the AMA. How? Significant space is needed to operate most RC planes. If that space is in a public park, the owners of the park will require insurance, which the AMA provides under specific, written guidelines. If an independent RC Club wants to lease/rent some private space to fly from, they would need to provide their own insurance. Dues paying members have skin in the game, so operations will be under self-formulated safety requirements. So, when we think of RC flying, we see almost universally safe operations. (And most of them are conservative grey-beards)

The people buying these aerial cameras don't need any infrastructure to fly. In fact, flying is only a means to their ends. They are not grey-beards, they are rambunctious youth and certainly not conservative. They want to see their videos "go viral". I've seen videos where guys fly off a 5th floor apartment balcony and return for landing. Insurance? What's that? Restricted airspace? Like I said, poke around GoPro or YouTube and consider the stuff that makes it to those venues is probably, at most, a 0.0X percentage of the stuff going on.

These things are flying off store shelves and through Amazon, et al. by the container load.

Aerial cameras provided a lot of footage at the Sochi Olympics. Would/could the FAA have permitted such a thing?

This issue is much more complex than the LSA regulations. How long did those take before release? Surf a few blogs on the subject. Lots of suggestions that these are "not illegal" because there are no governing laws/regulations in existence. And the FAA is now Judge-shopping to repair their loss.

I see the FAA are considering commercial exemptions for such things as filmmaking. What is the difference between amateur, or speculative and commercial filmmaking?

What will the FAA be regulating by the time regulations are written, years from now? A few days ago, I saw a middle-aged man with shirt and tie walk out of the shop I was in with a $5,000 octocopter. I wonder what he is going to do with it.

ADS-B and Radar? Maybe if you're operating a Predator or similar sophisticated device. Autonomous operation? Heck no, I want this thing to go where I point it, and if I change my mind I'll go somewhere else on a spot judgment.

Such is life................

Posted by: Edd Weninger | May 21, 2014 5:40 PM    Report this comment

Hey, Edd:

Autonomous capabilities will be fundamental to all operations, because that's how the rules will get enforced - even when you're "hand flying" the thing. If you decide to fly it into no-no airspace, the thing will over-rule your instructions.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | May 21, 2014 7:16 PM    Report this comment

Thomas, if what you're saying is that a $500 drone sold through Amazon and capable of flight to about 1000 feet will be required to be autonomous, I don't think this is realistic.

The kids buying these thing will jail break them and fly them however the hell they want. To expect them to file flight plans is sheer folly. It's hard to see how the FAA will be in a position to either require autonomous capability or enforce it on the small drones sold in the U.S.

There's one buzzing around town here where I live, shooting photos for a real estate office. I suspect there are hundreds of others doing the same.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 22, 2014 5:29 AM    Report this comment


What I'm saying is:

1. For six decades, RC models have been capable of all of the horrors that have been outlined above. Apparently the FAA thinks that they don't need additional regulation, regardless of what they are called.

2. If rogue flight (we need rules to define that) is considered to be a regulatory issue, the agency can issue rules (which won't be obeyed, if you believe many comments herein). But one such rule could be to prevent rogue flight in no-no airspace, by building the rules-compliance mechanism into the vehicles. Probably ALL vehicles manufactured after some date.

3. That there will be non-compliant "legacy" vehicles with us for some time means little, since we've already established that we can live with them under existing regulations.

4. I don't expect amateurs to file flight plans for these things. I do expect that - through automation or through regulation - the vehicles will be prohibited from operating in airspace where they would comprise a threat to other vehicles.

5. The unit cost of the "don't go there" part of an autonomous flight platform likely will be less than $10. And done properly, the same hardware/firmware would suffice for an insect-size UAV or an unmanned C-5. It's distinct from the vehicle-specific flight-control systems.

6. As you and Edd have pointed out, the threat really is less about the vehicles than it is about their operators. If the vehicles themselves are capable of breaking the rules (if instructed to do so, by their operators), then all of the rules in the Universe won't help matters much. That's already true with regard to classic RC models. This is why hardware/firmware-based rules-compliance will make all of the difference in the world. The only barrier to implementing this is a lack of will - certainly it's not a lack of affordable and reliable technology.

7. The manufacturers already are light years out in front of the FAA on these matters. I fear that the agency intends to write rules for the proper use of typewriters and carbon paper, in a world that's already full of word processors and laser printers.


Posted by: Tom Yarsley | May 22, 2014 9:15 AM    Report this comment

The more I think about this, the more I wonder if the FAA shouldn't just cede uncontrolled airspace below 400 feet and outside some reasonable radius from airports, TFRs and so forth. Then let local communities deal with noise, privacy and safety issues via local ordinances. No distinction on commercial or non-commercial operation.

Some won't bother, some will prohibit it entirely and some will be between. But that's better than the FAA attempting this. It has no resources, no expertise and, as you point out, is miles behind the market with no chance of ever catching up.

In reviewing the Pirker video again, at one point, he flies low across a heliport. That in itself is not dangerous unless the heliport is active. There has to be some means of the UAS pilot exercising due regard here. He may have done that with a spotter. Or not. But it does need to be done.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 22, 2014 9:44 AM    Report this comment

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