UAVs and the AOPA

“AOPA continues to maintain its position that unmanned aircraft be held to the same safety requirements—including the ability to safely sense and avoid other aircraft—as those of manned aircraft. As unmanned aircraft will be sharing the National Airspace System, everyone flying in it, including general aviation pilots, should be able to do so safely. ”

Those of us who are directly involved in UAV operation would like some input into the current “position” of the AOPA, specifically the “held to the same safety requirements…” part.  It may not be well known in the AOPA that a number of licensed pilots are also remote control aircraft enthusiasts. The FAA appears to have no worries about the weekend or vacation hobby flyer but has put an indefinite blanket over any professional uses for UAVs. The logic of this position is difficult to grasp. A hobby flyer just wants to fly for fun while a professional, with a larger investment, is motivated to avoid risk of liability or equipment loss. There’s no real estate to photograph at 10,000 feet. General Aviation has little to fear from the real estate photographer at 90 feet and much more to be concerned about the vacationer taking pictures over the Grand Canyon or some mountain resort area.

Aside from the current issues regarding FPV (First Person View) we will assume that most AMA members are responsible citizens of the airspace. Those of us who wish to some day be involved in aerial photography as business are, perhaps, unusual in that most are not only asking for regulation from the FAA, but are also ready to buy insurance, pass a reasonable FAA exam and establish viable safety practices and whatever else may be reasonably required.

First of all, on the matter of Sense and Avoid, operating VLOS from the ground with an observer, the UAV pilot has a 360 degree view of his aircraft and the surrounding airspace; a  pilot in a standard aircraft basically has only a 270 degree view from the cockpit. Technology promises future development but until there are sense and avoid options that can be fitted into a 2 pound multi-copter, the way to address this issue is with education, training, awareness and communication requirements along with strict altitude restrictions. Future adaptation of ADS-B might prove to be a more practical approach.

The AOPA should recognize there are significant differences between aircraft used for General Aviation and for Remote Piloting operation and more differences in the types of unmanned aircraft. Requirements that make sense for a Predator or RQ-7 Shadow converted for civilian use by an oil company or the local farmer may not apply to a 2 pound camera copter for real estate photography or a fixed wing craft used in search and rescue. One size does NOT fit all. The AOPA and the aviation community should recognize the fact that requirements should fit the task.

Next, while anyone can see the value of instruction, the FAA has strangely taken a position AGAINST schools teaching students to actually FLY any aircraft, thus creating a catch-22 and a significant obstacle to progress. To the contrary, the FAA and the aviation community should welcome and advocate pilot training and education for UAS operation. The AOPA should urge the FAA to grant COAs for these schools.

Almost nobody outside of the unmanned aircraft community fully understands the dimensions of the situation. When Michael Huerta predicted “…7,500 small unmanned aircraft in our national airspace in the next five years”, that was about the number of UAVs that were sold… THAT MONTH. His next sentence was telling: “…provided the regulations are in place to handle them.” Keywords “regulations in place”. Meanwhile the FAA’s own deadlines and goals continue to be missed, for what reasons we can only guess, but it is widely held that DOD manufacturers and lobbyists have a hand in the problem.

The UAV community and the AOPA share common goals as well as members. The AOPA should be joining with organizations like RCAPA, AUVSI and the AMA in urging the FAA to begin the process of integrating UAS into the NAS sooner rather than later, because the continued delay creates a void that only invites the kinds of problems that nobody wants, and one only needs to look back to the FCC’s slow response to CB radios to see the kind of chaos that can result from a delayed response to new technology.

Side note: This sounds encouraging… FAA to Make the Use of ‘Low-Risk’ Drones Permissible by November