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With UAS, There's Always A, "But..."

By Patrick C. Miller | March 12, 2015

Almost every week in the world of unmanned aerial systems, I read articles about how the U.S. is falling behind other countries in research, development and commercialization. I see calls for the Federal Aviation Administration to speed up the process to integrate UAS into the national airspace.

Between those with business plans involving UAS and those who want to bring their technology into the commercial marketplace, a great deal of pent-up frustration exists, and it’s not difficult to understand why.

But then you speak to someone with a different viewpoint on the issue that makes you stop and think about the risks involved in accelerating UAS integration. Shortly after he’d watched the UAS Magazine’s free webinar “Aerial Assets: UAS In Law Enforcement,” Edward Story called me to discuss his perspective.

Story serves on the board of the Professional Helicopter Pilots Association (PHPA). The organization has connections with law enforcement in and around the Los Angeles area where helicopters are also flown for fighting wildfires, gathering news and a wide variety of other purposes.

Story mentioned a conversation with an FAA official who told him the Los Angeles airspace was the most complex in the world. When you introduce UAS into that airspace, what are the potential consequences for helicopter pilots? As Story noted, a collision between a helicopter and a small UAS could be deadly. In a heavily populated area, there are valid concerns.

Story made it clear that the PHPA isn’t anti-UAS. The organization’s members want to work with the UAS community to develop a greater awareness and a better understanding of how to work together. There will likely be events in the near future aimed at getting the helicopter pilots and UAS operators together to discuss their mutual concerns.

Story said PHPA members also want information on how UAS will impact their businesses and whether they should consider adopting UAS technology themselves. As with any new technology, questions about its possible impacts come faster than the answers. Among PHPA members, there’s a vacuum for information about UAS that Story wants to fill.

History lessons are also a good way to gain perspective. Story noted a time in commercial aviation when it was thought that there was little need for air traffic control over remote regions of the country. This was tragically disproven in 1956 when a United Air Lines DC-7 collided in midair with TWA Lockheed Super Constellation over the Grand Canyon in Arizona. All 128 people on both aircraft died.

As the FAA states on its website, the accident “was a catalyst for changes to the air traffic control system, and led to the creation of the Federal Aviation Agency.”

The tremendous loss of life—the largest aviation disaster of the time—generated public debate on how to minimize the risk of midair collisions during a time when commercial aviation was undergoing tremendous expansion. It shouldn’t take an event of similar magnitude to remind us that safety should be the primary consideration in how UAS are integrated into the national airspace.