On April 28, 2015, the pilot of Virgin America flight 769 from New York to Dallas reported a quadcopter— a drone or remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS)—rising above it as it approached Love Field.
The plane landed safely, but RPAS incidents are a growing concern for commercial aviation.
There was a Class A incident at Heathrow in July last year, for example, meaning a near collision. The drone came close to an A320 while flying at 700 feet. And in January 2015, Dubai suspended operations for a time—at significant cost to the airlines and with major inconvenience to passengers—owing to an unknown drone operating in the vicinity.
The RPAS sector is growing fast and covers everything from high street toys to sophisticated military machinery. Its uses are equally varied and include leisure, advertising and search and rescue.
“The technology is developing quickly, and we could see remote aircraft the same size as a Boeing 737 being operated commercially in our skies within 10 years,” says Jim McAuslan, General Secretary of the British Airlines Pilots’ Association.
How the development of RPAS integrates into commercial air traffic management is, therefore, a question that must be answered quickly and comprehensively.
Areas of concern
There are four main areas of concern: safety, airspace access and equity; spectrum requirements; and security.
As ever, it is safety that tops the list. As the aforementioned incidents highlight, the biggest issue is the individual user flying a drone close to an airport. Clearly, the tremendous capabilities of shop-bought kits, and the lack of awareness of their operators, make regulating this aspect a priority.
“But how do we go about that?” asks Rob Eagles, IATA’s Director of ATM Infrastructure. “Some countries have simply banned their sale, but that isn’t what we want. We need to find some way of designing, publishing, and enforcing rules for the individual RPAS user. We must be nimble and we must be quick on this particular topic.”
Educational efforts are being made, with information leaflets and videos promoting responsible use. “Unless there are clear and enforceable rules, we have a false sense of security,” says Eagles.
The IATA Director accepts this may mean local police forces needing to be aware of aviation law, “which just goes to show how complex this situation is”.
At the other end of the scale, sophisticated larger vehicles—some of them military—will also need to be accommodated within an RPAS regulatory framework. The difficulties here are in knowing and integrating the ATM and aircraft technologies involved, and responding to the capabilities of the craft.
Not done correctly, this would introduce inefficiencies into an already congested civil aviation ATM system.
The IATA Operations Committee is making RPAS a high priority, but is taking a specific interest in the human factor considerations that must be given to piloting a large aircraft remotely as opposed to physically being located in the cockpit—especially when flying in congested airspace.
As to the other areas of concern, airspace access and equity deal with how to integrate RPAS into the ATM system while ensuring users have a fair allocation of airspace at their disposal. So while small users may not get priority over the needs of commercial airlines, they nevertheless should have the opportunity to fly their vehicles as often, and for as long, as is appropriate at a suitable location.
Spectrum limits, meanwhile, are a technical issue, dealing with the bandwidth used by RPAS. This should not affect frequencies already in use or needed by civil aviation.
And the security concern is clear. “RPAS could be used maliciously to target an aircraft or airport,” says Eagles. “We have to understand that and develop appropriate and effective, enforceable rules and regulations as well as countermeasures.”
A basis for progress
Aware of the growing interest in the unmanned vehicles sector, more than 20 countries have defined RPAS regulations, including the United States.
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has proposed that drones can only be flown during daylight hours, below 500 feet, and at 100 mph or less. They must also be at least five miles away from an airport. In addition, pilots would have to maintain constant visual contact with the drone and would be required to hold a new FAA certificate.
Eagles says this provides a good basis for progress, containing the key criteria that would make for an effective global standard: line of sight, a height limit, and a minimum distance from airports.
Certification processes would be applied to RPAS above a certain weight—which is approximately aligned with the vehicle’s capability. At the moment, this differs from country to country. In Canada, for example, it is 35kg while in the United Kingdom it is 20kg.
Alongside certification, standards must be developed to cover communications, radio frequency spectrum limits, separation standards, navigational capabilities and much more. It is a long list.
IATA is working on the RPAS panel at ICAO to develop the requisite standards and recommended procedures. In the meantime, ICAO has issued RPAS guidelines and urged countries to consider these when designing a regulatory response to the sector.
Work continues elsewhere. The FAA has just announced the Pathfinder program on the subject, and NASA is compiling a potential infrastructure for the United States. In Europe, the SESAR Joint Undertaking is examining how to integrate RPAS into SESAR.
“The industry is involved in many of these initiatives,” says Eagles. “It’s critical that we work together with the authorities in shaping the operating environment.
“There has been enormous investment in RPAS by major technology companies and venture capitalists,” he says. “And the vehicles are being manufactured at an incredible rate. So we can’t keep doing this on a case-by-case basis and create a patchwork of regulations. There need to be clear guidelines that can followed globally.”