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UAS: The Impact on General Aviation and What the Future Holds

February 1, 2019In light of recent reported drone sightings near airports, it is necessary to take a look at the importance of airspace restrictions, certification requirements, current regulations, and how drones can affect general aviation practice. 


The Law

The FAA Know Before You Fly guide states that users are not permitted to fly their unmanned aircraft beyond line of sight, fly their drone within five miles of an airport or in proximity to any manned aircraft unless specifically authorized by the FAA, fly near people or stadiums, be careless or reckless, fly anything that weighs more than 55 pounds, or fly for payment or commercial purposes unless specifically authorized by the FAA. 


FAA guidelines also state that users could be fined if they endanger people or other aircraft. According to federal law, users could also be fined $250,000 or face imprisonment up to three years for failure to register their drone. For a UAS operator who holds a manned pilot certificate, the real threat is the impact those actions have on a person’s pilot certificate — suspension or revocation. 


Registering Your Drone 

When registering as an operator, a UAS pilot must state if they are planning on using their drone for recreational or commercial purposes. If they state they are using it for recreational purposes then they must follow the Modeler Community-Based Organizations guidelines, previously known as Section 336, and register as a “modeler.” If they are using it for commercial purposes, then they must complete the Part 107 test. Federal law states that any operator must register all aircraft that weigh more than 0.55 pounds and less than 55 pounds, be at least 13 years old in order to register, and to renew UAS registration every three years.


Risks to General Aviation 

The threat that drones pose to general aviation practice is obvious; any midair collision with an object is dangerous to aircraft. Bird strikes happen to general aviation aircraft regularly, and while most passenger aircraft are capable of flying with one engine out of commission, drones pose a larger threat to smaller single-engine aircraft. According to a study published by the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (ASSURE), a metallic object, such as a drone containing lithium batteries, could cause an uncontained failure if struck by a passenger carrying airplane with turbine engines. 


On January 8, 2019, Heathrow Airport, the largest and busiest airport in the U.K., received word of multiple illegally operated drone sightings in close proximity to the airport. While the drones were not found by local police officials, the threat caused the airport to take safety precautions and shutdown for an hour and a half. Just three weeks prior to this incident, Gatwick Airport, London’s second largest airport, also experienced a similar situation where two more illegally operated drones were allegedly sighted. This resulted in a 36-hour shutdown leading to 1,000 canceled flights that affected more than 1,400 passengers. 


The FAA reported 786 potentially illegally operated drone sightings in the U.S. between April 2018 and June 2018 and 452 sightings between January 2018 and March 2018. The FAA said it encourages the public to report unauthorized drone operations to local law enforcement and to discourage this “dangerous, illegal activity.” The FAA also said it receives more than 100 reports each month and wants to “send out a clear message that operating drones around airplanes, helicopters, and airports is dangerous and illegal.”


Avoiding Potential Risks  

In order to reduce aircraft-drone related accidents, the research team from ASSURE evaluated the potential impacts of a 2.7-pound quadcopter and 4-pound quadcopter, and a 4-pound and 8-pound fixed-wing drone on a single-aisle commercial transport jet and a business jet then reported on the results. 


“The windshields generally sustained the least damage and the horizontal stabilizers suffered the most serious damage,” the report stated. “The structural damage severity levels ranged from no damage to failure of the primary structure and penetration of the drone into the airframe. The team conducted a preliminary computer simulation to evaluate the potential damage to engine components if a drone is ingested into an aircraft engine, including damage to fan blades, the nacelle, and the nosecone.”


The team announced in 2017 that it planned “future additional research on engine ingestion in collaboration with engine manufacturers, as well as additional airborne collision studies with helicopters and general aviation aircraft.”


Generally, the FAA states that it is best practice to avoid flying a drone near airports. There are three options if you must fly near an airport. If you have a remote pilot certificate and are following Part 107 rules, you must get permission to fly in a controlled airspace from air traffic control through Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability or through the FAA DroneZone website. The second option is applicable if you are flying with a model aeroclub organization following the special rule for model aircraft, then you must notify the airport operator and air traffic control tower to fly within 5 miles. The last option applies to a public entity. In this case, the FAA may issue you special permission to fly in a designated location near an airport. 


Looking Ahead 

On October 5, 2018, the FAA Reauthorization Act repealed Section 336 of the 2012 version of the FAA authorization law. During that time, a statement was released by the agency that it is “evaluating the impacts of the changes and how implementation will proceed.” It is still unclear how or when this act will be fully or partially implemented. 


On January 14, 2019, DOT Secretary Elaine Chao announced proposed new rules and a pilot project to allow drones to fly at night and over people without waivers under certain conditions. These proposed changes to Part 107 would attempt to “balance the need to mitigate safety risks without inhibiting technological and operational advances.” When the FAA announced this draft NPRM, it indicated that it will be “seeking public input to identify major drone safety and security issues that may pose a threat to other aircraft, to people on the ground, or to national security as drones are integrated into our national airspace.”


While the FAA has released drafted plans for future allowance of commercial night flying, we will likely not see any implementation for another year or two until the commenting phase has finished.


What Can You Do?

Know the drone laws in the state where you live, as they vary from state to state. For example, EAA’s home state of Wisconsin has two state-wide laws concerning the use of drones. Act 346 states that operators are not to use a drone to interfere with hunting, fishing, or trapping while Act 318 prohibits the operation of UAS over correctional facilities. 


EAA’s Role

EAA is working with other industry leaders on the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team (UAST) to ensure that the process of integrating drones into the airspace system is safe for all. EAA is involved as a member of the UAST in a sightings report working group, tasked with creating a system for manned pilots to report drone sightings. Additionally, EAA has participated in aviation rulemaking committees (ARC) focused on UAS safety and continues to carefully review any proposed rules with member interests in mind. While the safety of general aviation is always the top priority, EAA recognizes drones, and particularly traditional model aviation, as a strong pathway into the manned aviation world.


EAA also has a very active relationship with the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), and partners with the AMA on joint youth education programs, supports mutually beneficial advocacy efforts, and encourages EAA chapters and AMA clubs to collaborate on promoting recreational aviation activities. EAA and AMA members also receive select reciprocal member benefits, including discounted membership to both organizations. EAA integrates RC model flying into the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh event through our Twilight Flight Fest and the RC fun fly area at Pioneer Airport and at Aviation Gateway Park in the Drone Cage. RC and free flight model activities are also showcased at the EAA museum at the annual Family Flight Fest weekend.

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