Aircraft Accidents and UAS Data, Part X

Beginning with this website’s November 2016 posting, Aircraft Accidents and UAS Data I, through the ninth of the series in October 2019, this website has followed the studies conducted on the unmanned aerial system (UAS) industry and its acclimation into the national airspace system (NAS). The studies are conducted by dedicated professionals who understand the UAS industry and comprehend the need for structure and rules. The sixth article, authored by Ryan J. Wallace, John M. Robbins, James K. Holliman, Donald S. Metscher and Taylor R. Rogers, all of Embry-Riddle University (ERAU) and Jon M. Loffi of Oklahoma State University (OSU), was published in the ERAU Scholarly Commons International Journal of Aviation, Aeronautics and Aerospace, Volume 7, Issue 2, Article 4, under the title: Evaluating LAANC Utilization and Compliance for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems in Controlled Airspace. This study reviews the team’s work looking at Low Altitude Authorizations and Notification Capability (LAANC).

The article opens with the Levin/Hofacker/Karpowics analogy that, “The process of integrating small unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System has often been attributed as the ‘wild west’”. The comparison was that the lawlessness and ‘frontier justice’ of the American expansion into the west was akin to the “… perception of lax regulation and loose oversight” of the home industry of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). This writer would argue that the UAS industry presents more of a 3-D challenge in danger. Where the wild west was a two-dimensional danger of X- and Y-axes, the UAS adds the Z-axis to the mix. It is also conducted under the myopic eye of better technologies.

After the Code of Federal Regulations Part 107 regulations were approved in 2016 and the FAA Reform Act, Public Law 115-254, was passed in 2018, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) attempted to get recreational and hobbyist UAV operators under control. These non-business operators were operating UAVs for fun and sport, often with little regard for safety. Whether intentionally or not, they forced a bad reputation on UAS industry persons who employ UAVs as a means of income in design, manufacture or as business assets.

“In April 2018, the [FAA] began a nationwide rollout of an alternative, expedited means for Part 107 operators to receive approval to operate in controlled airspace. The [LAANC] was designed as a collaborative data-sharing arrangement between the FAA and industry to support UAS integration into selected areas of low-altitude, controlled airspace.” This allowed legitimate UAS operators to streamline the airspace-use requests for flights in controlled airspace, e.g. near airports or flying over such populated areas as residences, beaches and parks. ‘Legitimate’ referred to businesses and others who used the NAS while abiding by the regulations.

The UAS industry is a complicated industry. The task of enforcing safety in the industry is much like Hercules’ battle with the fictional many-headed Hydra of Lerna, in that if one were to ‘stop’ one head (problem), two more would sprout in its place. The prevalent reason for established certificate holders slow walking the UAS industry’s acceptance into the NAS was because of the few UAV operators who violated NAS airspace regularly, threatening air safety. Their antics wreaked havoc with airliners, aerial fire fighters, law enforcement and military aircraft. Their UAVs had no markings and the UAV operators could have been safely concealed, hiding from the consequences of their actions. Major airports, like La Guardia, reported dozens of UAV NAS airspace intrusions every night over the last decade. UAS acceptance was further hindered by the FAA’s inability to collect data on UAV safety.

Since the turn of the century, the FAA has implemented programs that evolved, accruing good data that could be used to assure the NAS was increasing safety. Originally, the testbed Air Transport Oversight System – ATOS – was designed to gather safety data for the air carrier oversight offices. ATOS started unsteadily at first, but the FAA and industry made it work. ATOS evolved into the Safety Assurance System – SAS – which expanded to include repair stations and smaller operators. The launch of SAS (ATOS’s next generation) succeeded because of ATOS’s lessons. However, the UAS industry was far different; data-gathering programs like LAANC had no ATOS to learn or evolve from.

The team’s purpose for writing this article was to, “codify LAANC effectiveness by comparing LAANC authorizations against UAS flight activity identified using UAS detection equipment.”

It is not, as in previous website postings, the intention of this writer to interpret nor communicate all that is in the team’s research; the readers can access the report’s data themselves. Instead, it is the writer’s intent to summarize what was found to be important. Research conditions at Daytona Beach International Airport (KDAB) and its surrounding area were ideal; the airport and nearby beach provided various air traffic conditions for reliable sample populations not found at a JFK, e.g. banner towers, student pilots, small air taxis, public use and regularly scheduled flights of major airlines. In addition, ERAU has UAS studies, which guaranteed that the latest UAS tracking equipment was available, unobstructed by big city skyscrapers. The equipment was already properly mounted (as seen in previous reports by this team). One could take the lessons learned at KDAB and reconcile them to understand the trials forced upon O’Hare (Chicago) or Logan (Boston).

While UAVs that are operated out of their allowable airspace pose threats to major airliner safety, the slower student pilot aircraft, banner towers and tour helicopters are most vulnerable to illegal UAV operations. With KDAB within the city’s perimeter, any inflight collisions would result in the manned aircraft impacting within heavily populated areas.

The research group employed the DJI AeroScope detector to track unmanned aircraft. This equipment can only detect DJI-brand UAVs. The AeroScope’s data included date/time, UAV type, UAV ID, flight ID, coordinates, launch location and pilot location over a thirty-day period. DJI UAVs are the most popular UAVs, thus the data was gathered using the best sample. The AeroScope’s “detection data and LAANC approval data were compared to evaluate UAS detections and LAANC approvals over a period of time.”

NOTE: This article cannot do the research results justice; the conditions and data are best understood with the authors’ attached visual aids, such as graphs and mapping.

The research questions were:

  1. What proportion of detected UAS activity carried out in controlled airspace can be correlated to an LAANC authorization? “Only 19 LAANC authorizations could be correlated to UAS activity among the 65 automated LAANC approvals.” This represented a 30% disconnect between known LAANC authorizations and what was tracked. Possible reasons: (1) approved UAS were not flown during the authorized period; (2) approved UAS were not trackable JLI UAVs or (3) the LAANC launch location did not match the UAS launch location. Researchers were concerned that 252 (93%) UAS operations were not reconciled with authorized LAANCs. The team determined that “current regulatory mechanisms designed to control UAS operator access to controlled airspace may not be working.”
  2. What proportion of detected UAS activity exceeds the maximum prescribed altitudes of the UAS Facility Map? Of 271 UAS flights, 93 were found to be above the maximum prescribed altitudes; 39 exceeded allowable maximum altitudes by less than 100 feet. These UAS flights posed a serious hazard to the NAS. In addition, 41 UAS flights exceeded the maximum allowable altitude between 500 – 1000 feet (32 UAVs); between 1000 – 1500 feet (6 UAVs) and over 1500 feet (3 UAVs). These 41 UAS operations posed a greater risk to manned aircraft. Again, the test area was near a major international airport and its surrounding city.

The team recommended that there were “notable gaps in effectiveness and compliance with existing FAA policies” for UAS in the NAS. The research team recommended “the adoption of proactive measures to curtail non-compliant operations, including formal and informal UAS operator education, liberal use of deterrent measures and continual promotion of UAS compliance tools.” The team also recommended “more stringent UAS operator enforcement measures are also warranted.”

This author adds this thought: the UAS industry’s success depends on the trust and acceptance of the certificated operators who have been using the NAS for decades. The UAS industry must police their own, which includes the hobbyists and recreational UAV operators who abuse the NAS. They know where the weaknesses are; they should exploit this knowledge to bring the UAS industry forward. Their livelihoods are being threatened by bad apples. The FAA, itself, does not have the resources.

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