Last week’s web posting addressed the third study Article written by Wallace, Kiernan, Haritos and Robbins, titled: Small Unmanned Aircraft System Operator Compliance with Visual Line of Sight Requirements; the Article was printed in the International Journal of Aviation, Aeronautics and Aerospace, Volume 6, Issue 2 in 2019. This Article, when combined with two previous articles, presented issues with the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) and the hurdles to be cleared by the aviation industry to avoid accidents. These facts are long overdue. The aviation community has been placed in a reactive position, which, safety-wise, is not a good place to be.
The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is unique in the autonomous world; they are miniaturized air transportation vehicles. There are fixed wing versions that fly like an airplane and others that operate on rotors. Since UAVs operate within the three axes – X, Y and Z – safety concerns differ from the UAV’s counterparts, e.g. model trains, radio-controlled cars or radio-controlled boats, which pose little threat to the rail, highway and marine industries. To the point, the Rail community is unconcerned with model HO trains breaking free from a basement and causing a 100-car freight train derailment. Yet, a hobbyist’s UAV, hovering near an airport approach, is a real threat to life and safety.
The lesson of First Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge was sobering; aviation was young and imperfect; it was dangerous, yet promising. Once mail was moved by air, we as a civilization could not regress, but improved air mail to become the norm. Pilots still ran out of fuel, crashed into objects at night or were lost in fog. As the DC-8 and the B707 made trans-ocean travel safer and quicker, aviation moved beyond the DC-7 and Boeing 314 Clipper. Older aircraft were pushed out, making way for progress. Still, TWA 800’s lessons reminded us that aviation was still imperfect.
As the UAS industry evolves, we must continue focusing on safety first. My opinion: UAVs are becoming an irreplaceable part of commerce, particularly in the capitalistic environment. Jobs and technological opportunities represented by the UAS are countless; dozens of careers are in the making. However, despite numerous opportunities, dangers are just as abundant. None more critical than the inability for effective oversight.
We are reminded that manufacturers and air operators in the aviation industry have been just as responsible for safety as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has. Decades of regulatory evolution resulted in an oversight system as close to streamlined as can be. The FAA learned to work with the aviation community for the mutual benefit of lowering accident rates and community safety. Is the system perfect? No, but considering the industry’s diversity, aviation is very safe. FAA policies and programs are regularly revised to meet the aviation’s changing demands. FAA aviation safety inspectors (ASIs) are available, seen; they are involved.
Still, the aviation community is concerned, not just with the UAS industry, but with the Congress’s plan to spread the FAA even thinner. To quote JRR Tolkien, “Sort of stretched, like butter spread over too much bread.” To be clear, this is not a small endeavor; the UAS industry is complex, with too many amateurs playing deep below the radar.
Overseeing the entire UAS industry and the aviation community, simultaneously, is impossible. My analogy would be to imagine the Federal Highway Administration suddenly being responsible for the direct policing of every underage speeder, drivers without licenses, fender-bender investigations, reckless drivers, etc., on every road in America while working Monday through Friday, 8:00 to 16:30 local. The FAA is the premier aviation agency in the world. However, is the United States Congress falling on its collective swords putting UAS oversight all on the FAA? Do they understand the magnitude of that responsibility?
To adequately meet the FAA’s needs to oversee both the legacy aviation industry and the growing UAS industry, FAA employee numbers would have to increase four to five times its present manpower. In addition, the FAA’s budget would have to increase considerably, not just to meet the increase in hiring, but to purchase/lease technologies to track the UAVs; renting the available space for attaching the technology to buildings, towers, etc. This data input is crucial to surveillance; it is analyzed to build safety programs for the UAS industry. Another issue: current UAV tracking technologies are manufacturer-specific, e.g. a ‘Brand X’ UAVs can only be tracked by a ‘Brand X’ UAV tracker. Congress would have to budget the FAA with some serious cash to build UAS safety systems, just as the aviation industry uses.
What about the local and privacy laws the UAVs could be violating? How does the FAA square the circle with local law enforcement? Are all laws governing UAVs going to be federal laws or local? Who has jurisdiction? Who prosecutes? Who appears in court? How are UAVs registered? Will all UAVs be required to sport an ‘N’ or equivalent registration number? At present, Title 14 code of federal regulations (CFRs) Part 107 has not addressed this yet.
The Authors’ three Article’s analyzed three unique problems: Article One – pilot awareness of UAVs in their environment; Article Two – tracking UAVs near a small commercial airport; Article Three – potential hazards related to operating UAVs beyond the visual line of sight. The sobering truths of these Articles force the aviation industry to accept undeniable facts: the FAA lacks the technology or the manpower to successfully oversee the UAS industry a-a-a-and the aviation community; large government fails to comprehend the vast scope of this monumental task.
Perspective: A major airline’s FAA certificate management office (CMO) employs roughly eighty to one hundred ASIs, working Monday through Friday, 8:00 to 16:30 in their time zone. These ASIs oversee: thousands of mechanics and pilots; hundreds of aircraft; follow dozens of safety programs, while flying to hundreds of airport ramps – worldwide – 24/7, 365-1/4 days a year. ValuJet Airlines flight 592 crashed on May 11, 1996; ValuJet was strictly a domestic airline. A fundamental reason behind the disaster was the airline’s unchecked growth, e.g. new aircraft and contracting maintenance, that exceeded the ValuJet CMO’s ability to monitor and prevent the safety problems due to ineffective oversight. Twenty-three years later, adequate oversight of the growing airlines continues to be major challenges.
Can the UAS industry receive successful FAA supervision? No. Congress isn’t looking at the reality; elected representatives – with no aviation experience – are relying on the advice of ‘experts’ – with no aviation experience, to make decisions affecting the safety of the travelling public. Congress is pushing the UAS industry off on the only agency that handles aviation ‘stuff’. That’s the only criteria they care about: the FAA handles aviation ‘stuff’.
Can’t the FAA hire more ASIs? First, the FAA hires ASIs who are experienced in their industry to ensure effective aviation oversight. The UAS industry is so young; there aren’t many UAS professionals to hire from. Besides, the UAS industry pays better. Second, the FAA is already seriously understaffed.
The CFRs governing the UAS industry fall under Title 14 CFR Part 107 Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems and its forty-four subparts; these subparts will grow through time and experience. The aviation industry has been regulated under Parts 21, 23, 25, 26, 27, 29, 31, 33 and 35 just addressing airworthiness and certification; Part 43 addresses Maintenance as does Part 65 and 145. Pilots fall under Parts 61, 63, 67 and 68. The certification of air operators’ operations and maintenance programs come under Parts 119, 121, 125, 129 and 135. There are CFRs for schools, medical certification, rotorcraft operations and agriculture. Each Part has dozens of subparts, all based upon different certifications and experiences, e.g. day-to-day issues and accidents.
Can the FAA extend its limited resources to shepherd the UAS industry through its evolutions, and assure the flying public that a ValuJet 592 will not happen again? Will the FAA be guaranteeing safety or effectiveness in its oversight? The US Congress is betting on it. What are they using as ante?