Integration of Unmanned Aerial Systems

Jul 15, 2014

The soaring appeal of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) is undeniable. Whether autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or remotely-piloted vehicles (RPVs) in fixed-wing or rotorcraft configurations, the technologies enable the public and private sectors to dramatically reduce costs. Their military value has been demonstrated in Afghanistan, and other public-sector uses such as law enforcement, forest fire surveys and environmental monitoring are proving equally effective.

In the private sector, high-end users include geophysical survey companies and the television and film industries. However, their proliferation – exacerbated by the increasing numbers of hobby platforms, some of which have encroached on conventional airspace – presents a challenge for regulators. A Transport Canada working group has been wrestling with operators’ evolving and often conflicting priorities, as has the US Federal Aviation Administration.

Vancouver lawyer Lee Mauro, whose specialties at Harper Grey LLP include aviation and liability, is concerned that in Canada currently, operators of platforms weighing less than 35 kilograms must maintain line of sight and avoid proximity to controlled airspace. South of the border, they’re not supposed to be flown anywhere near controlled airspace without permission.

Yet stories of encroachment abound, prompting questions about the prospect of a UAS striking a larger aircraft. “They are not tested for a 75-pound carbon fibre drone flying into an engine or hit the windscreen,” Mauro told FrontLine. “The technology at this point is . . . moving at a pace that has significantly outpaced the legislative ability to keep up to it."

Police are investigating the deployment of an RPV near Vancouver International Airport (YVR) this summer. In another incident in the area, an Air Canada pilot reported one within 50 metres of his aircraft. An RCMP investigator described the situation as “Incredibly dangerous and incredibly stupid.

Earlier this year, an American Airlines Bombardier CRJ-200 was at 2,300 feet about 5 miles from its Tallahassee Regional Airport destination in Florida when an RPV flew so close that the airliner’s pilot thought he had collided with the smaller platform. No damage was found but that, coupled with other scares, has increased the pressure on regulators to act before there is a mid-air catastrophe of the kind posited by Mauro.

Transport Canada expects to issue a Special Flight Operations Certificate later this year, the end product of discussions by a government-industry working group which began working on a regulatory framework “unique” to UAS operations. “The department continues to work to develop further regulations that will allow the safe integration of UAVs into civil airspace,” it said in a July e-mail to FrontLine. “. . . In doing so, TC will work in collaboration with key stakeholders and its international counterparts to address the emergence of this new aviation sector.”

Meanwhile, responding to “recent incidents involving the reckless use of unmanned model aircraft near airports and involving large crowds of people,” the FAA recently published a Federal Register notice about the rules set out in the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act.

The FAA, which plans to work with the law enforcement community to promote understanding of the limitations in the notice, which doesn’t apply to commercial UAS operations. Those are subject to the same regulations governing conventional aircraft operations, requiring a certified aircraft and pilot. Federal, state and local governments as well as public universities can apply for a waiver but those are reviewed by the FAA on a case-by-case basis.

Richard Bray is a FrontLine senior writer.
© FrontLine Security 2014