Aircraft Accidents and UAS Data, Part Eight

Tracking equipment picture credited to

Beginning in November 2016, with Aircraft Accidents and UAS Data, Parts One and Two; then in October 2018 with Parts Three and Four; March 2019 was Parts Five and Six. In May 2019, I wrote Part Seven, but consequently I became preoccupied with a new position and a writing project, so I never returned to Part Eight. It is time I remedied that oversight.

The unmanned aerial system (UAS) and the national airspace system (NAS) conversation has been in need of dedicated professionals who understand the industry, who also comprehend the need for rules. The fourth Article (study) had been written by Ryan Wallace, Kristy Kiernan, John Robbins, all of Embry-Riddle University; Tom Haritos of Kansas State University and Jon Loffi of Oklahoma State University, titled: Evaluating Small UAS Operations and National Airspace System Interference Using AeroScope. The Article was printed in the Journal of Aviation Technology and Engineering (JATE) 8:2 (2019) 24-39. In the four studies the Authors build up to an uncomfortable reality of rules gone missing.

The first sentence in the report states, “A recent rash of near mid-air collisions coupled with the widespread proliferation of small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) raise concerns that integration is posing additional risk to the NAS”. What were the authors referring to when they stated, “… integration is posing additional risk to the NAS”? The sale and use of sUAS vehicles, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), has grown. Consequently, as per Rupprecht Law website, before 2005, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had little to do with UAVs. Aside from publishing Advisory Circular (AC) 91-57 in 1981. This AC provided guidance for those who operate UAVs as hobbies or recreationally. There are two takeaways from this AC: for one it was not regulatory, ACs never were.

For two it was 1981; many UAVs were tethered in those days or had extremely limited radio-control range. Looking in the rearview mirror, was the FAA wrong to lose sight of the UAS industry? Perhaps. If you listen to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the FAA was to blame for everything from world hunger to Who shot JR, also from the 80s. However, much of the UAS advancements came under military testing that was then later adopted into private industry. The military was out of the FAA’s purview. Blame or no blame, the UAS industry boom caught everyone, including those who employed the NAS, off guard.

In 2007, the FAA put out a statement, “The FAA recognizes that people and companies other than modelers might be flying UAS with the mistaken understanding that they are legally operating under the authority AC 91-57.” During the original struggle to get NextGen and other much needed programs off the ground, the FAA tried to stem the confusion that the UAS industry presented. Soon after, Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 107 was begun. But the federal regulations cannot be adopted overnight; they must succumb to the regulation writing process, which takes, on average, five to seven years and costs in excess of five million dollars to write – per section; Part 107 presently consists of twenty-eight sections. Who is part of this process? Everyone, from the pilots’ unions to airlines to government to lawyers. In June 2016, Title 14 CFR Part 107: Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems debuted.

How does one qualify for a UAS remote pilot certificate? As per Title 14 CFR Part 107.61, one must:

  1. Be at least 16 years of age;
  2. Be able to read, speak and understand the English language;
  3. Be mentally and physically able to safely operate an unmanned vehicle, and;
  4. Demonstrate aeronautical knowledge by passing a knowledge test as specified in 107.31(a) OR, in short, the person holds a pilot certificate under Part 61 and received familiarity training.

To operate a UAV or sUAS in the NAS, one must meet these requirements. And this leads back to the study in JATE previously mentioned. The report first refers to data provided by Gettinger and Michael in 2015 that showed 931 UAV-to-airliner reported incidents, some taking place by airports such as Los Angeles and Newark International airports. These were visual sightings and close to or within the airport’s approach route. That was a summary of the report’s data but gave one an idea of the irresponsible behavior of some sUAS operators playing ‘chicken’ with the safety of passenger aircraft. To clarify, a narrow-body jet approaches an airport in excess of 130 to 150 knots. At that speed, a UAV could penetrate an airplane’s cockpit by flying through the windscreen or through the radome, killing the pilots before they even realized what happened.

Four years later, in Spring 2019, the JATE study took a more involved look at how to gather data. Using manufacturer-specific tracking availability, the authors measured more accurately the altitudes being violated, the airport perimeters trespassed, the approaches endangered, and times of operation ignored. The findings were not good news for the NAS. One might argue that the study authors are a group of Killjoys with a Jiminy Cricket conscience complex, but they are not. In fact, they represent a very pro-UAS group of educators and professionals in world-renowned aviation education institutions.

And to be clear, the authors’ tracking used specific equipment sold by a manufacturer with 70% market share of unmanned vehicles sold; the equipment could only track that specific manufacturer’s vehicles. The study took place in two major airports AND could not detect 30% of the UAVs presently owned and operated. The authors recommended aligning operational rules. The study stated, “The authors assert the large numbers of potential violations assessed under 14 CFR 107 rules are indicative of growing systemic risks in the NAS posed by unmanned aircraft operations. Based on the high proportions of hobbyist registrations in the sample area, the authors suspect that the majority of detected sUAS operations represent hobbyist activity or flights not otherwise carried out under 14 CFR 107 provisions.” The authors also recommend, “… Congress consider revocation of the preamble contained in Section 336(a) of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which would allow the FAA to codify and impose reasonable operational limitations on hobbyist and model aircraft activity to protect the safety of the NAS.” The preamble is too lengthy for this article; it is highly recommended that the JATE studies and the Section 336(a) preamble be read in their entirety.

What are we to ascertain from the study’s findings and recommendations? This article interpreted that the study made clear that bad actors within the UAS industry still act irresponsibly and in stealth, that they represent a real threat to aviation safety and the NAS. These concerns cannot be ignored; there must be swift and clear action nationwide or we will find ourselves staring into a smoking hole.

In addition, this article finds that the FAA is not up to the task of policing the UAS alone. The authors were well equipped for this study and were looking for specific findings; the FAA is not. Just as the FAA was late to the post-AC 91-57 world, the FAA cannot expect to become properly manned, trained and equipped with the latest technology by 2007 – that’s right, twelve years ago. Already they are late to the game and Congress shows no sign of relieving or aiding them in this losing strategy.

This is serious stuff folks. No quippy conclusion; no positive spin; no hopeful advice. Soon there won’t even be a can to kick down the road.

2 thoughts on “Aircraft Accidents and UAS Data, Part Eight”

  1. Dr. Wallace runs a good group, but scholarly publishing always has a delay because of the peer-review process … Section 336 was repealed by Section 349 of the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act. The 2018 Act mandated the FAA do a number of things related to recreational UAS operators. Most of those deadlines have passed without action or with minimal action.

    1. Good points. I looked up Section 349 of the 2018 Act and a reading through it. Section 44809 does not give me much hope as it reads. I will peruse through it some more and perhaps write a follow-up later. As I began with, the Section 44809 tells me that the exceptions for limited recreational operations have missed the mark. Sure it has given some freedoms, but to who? Probably the bad actors who Doctor Wallace was speaking to. This is what I see as the basic problem: an inability for the FAA to oversee this industry by itself. Congress does not understand that and therefore nothing will be done to change the way we are going. I will read through I and see what falls out. Thanks for the reply; good food for thought and debate.

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