Amid safety concerns, FAA makes progress toward UAS airspace integration

By UAS Magazine Staff | September 17, 2015

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is slowly making progress toward integrating unmanned aerial systems (UAS) into the national airspace, says the Government Accountability Office. But along with more unmanned aircraft in the sky have come increased reports of encounters with manned aircraft.

A GAO study noted that the FAA has increased the number of approvals on a case-by-case basis, and the agency itself announced that it has surpassed 1,000 Section 333 commercial exemptions. However, safety concerns heightened in early August when the agency released information on more than 750 incidents involving UAS, including encounters reported by pilots. 

The FAA warned that operating UAS near helicopters and airplanes is dangerous and illegal, and could lead to fines, criminal charges and possible jail time. In addition, the agency released the beta version of a new smartphone application called “B4UFLY,” primarily aimed at model aircraft enthusiasts. It’s designed to give users information about restrictions or requirements in effect at their flight locations.

According to the GAO, since 2010, the total number of approvals for UAS operations has increased annually. The increase in commercial UAS activity comes on the heels of the FAA issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for regulations for small UAS under 55 pounds.

While the GAO said integration of UAS flights into national air space remains a work in progress, “clearly we were able to say that all the signs are pointing in a positive direction, that FAA is definitely moving forward with this integration” said Gerald Dillingham, GAO physical infrastructure director. “Although, it probably took longer than most people wanted it to take, right now, it looks like we’re on a good path.”

Another significant development came in May when the FAA announced the selection of Mississippi State University to lead the UAS Center of Excellence (COE), a team of universities engaged in research with their industry partners. The agency said the COE will focus on research, education and training in areas critical to safe and successful integration of UAS into the nation’s airspace.

Maj. Gen. James Poss (retired) of Mississippi State University, leads the COE team. Poss said the COE will serve as a hub for the six FAA-designated UAS test sites, UAS research universities and other government research agencies, such as NASA.

The other universities selected as team members include: Drexel University; Embry Riddle Aeronautical University; Kansas State University; Kansas University; Montana State University; New Mexico State University; North Carolina State University; Oregon State University; University of Alabama, Huntsville; University of Alaska, Fairbanks; University of North Dakota; and Wichita State University.

Another notable event occurred in August when the FAA gave the Northern Plains UAS Test Site in North Dakota approval to expand operations and night flight testing capabilities throughout the state. The site also received a COA that makes the entire state of North Dakota available for UAS testing at altitudes higher than the 200-foot, the only site in the nation with this ability.

The FAA also launched Project Pathfinder, a research project with the private sector. CNN is studying the use of UAS to gather news within visual line-of-sight (LOS) operations in populated areas. PrecisionHawk will examine extended visual LOS operations in rural areas for crop monitoring in precision agriculture operations. BNSF Railway will conduct beyond visual LOS in remote rural areas to inspect railroad infrastructure and study command-and-control issues.

During the summer, the FAA’s project on UAS Integration in the National Airspace System (NAS) conducted flight testing of sense-and-avoid technology at the NASA Armstrong Fight Research Center in California. The flights included the first full test of an automatic collision avoidance capability on autonomous aircraft. Also participating in the tests were General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. and Honeywell International Inc.