UASs need airspace rules to grow by so that systems can be developed
Not having airspace rules to grow by is hurting the aviation industry. Airports in London faced rogue drones buzzing the runways. Several of the largest airports in Europe ended up closing operations and canceling hundreds of flights. The same scenario will happen here in the USA. No laws exist against such a situation should the offending drone operators be hobbyists.
The drone industry today needs more data, new regulations, and a definition of problems. And, they need airspace rules to grow by. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for coming up with rules that would serve as a framework for action. The pandemic slowdown was a perfect time to get rules set for unmanned aerial systems (UAS). However, the US is still behind the eight-ball when it comes to the establishment of an UAS system.
The FAA can kill the drone industry by studying it
The FAA studies the project to death. Congress must take action and someone must produce a study looking at a national rollout of UASs. In the meantime, the US falls farther and farther behind the rest of the world in drone technology and control. Today, post-pandemic, the FAA finds itself still studying the rollout.
Around 50,000 aircraft in the sky over the US at any time use the air traffic control system. However, millions of drones have been sold. The FAA cannot control that kind of overwhelming air traffic. The US must develop an autonomous system that operates without human day-to-day FAA active control.
Here are some initial steps to ensure safety —
- When purchased, register all drones to a responsible adult.
- Equipped with geofencing technology that will keep them out of airport areas and other restricted zones.
- Drones should have altitude limiters to keep them below the 1,000-foot altitude threshold.
- All drones should ping their identifier information using a system used in cell phones or, better, using ADS-B.
The US government needs to take these drone control steps today to allow better testing and development
These actions the FAA can take as soon as possible and provide identification of owners and responsible adults for the drone’s use. It would be similar to the registration of an automobile, motorcycle, or bicycle.
More testing over remote areas of the country needs to be permitted without long approval processes. Start an examination of the future of enforcement needs immediately. Plan federal oversight and state and local enforcement. The same for states and localities. Such rules will set local limits on drone deployment and zoning — including privacy rules for airspace over homes and minimum-distance rules from buildings to control drone operations.
These kinds of visionary drone control activities need to begin now. So far, the FAA and the drone industry are keeping their heads buried in the sand with no view of the possible future. Yes, action taken has not been well coordinated. Plus, the FAA and NASA have no public education program.
We need congressional direction for the FAA
The birth of the UAS air traffic world will require congressional action and a mandate to look into the future. While the FAA has focused on regulation, Congress needs to signal a need for a vision of the future that will drive innovation and experimentation — the coming world where low-level UASs may become as common as automobiles.
We have a traffic management system with highways, local roads, traffic signage and signals, and enforcement for surface transportation. The US needs to develop a similar system for the national airspace system.
Travelers United is urging the creation of an advisory board authorized to take a reasonable and educated look at the future. This independent group will focus on organization, operational safety, enforcement, innovation, and privacy. Such an advisory board will merge many of the FAA and NASA responsibilities for UASs.
The drone genie is out of the bottle
These studies will shape the future of our aviation industry. They will stimulate innovation and knit together our country. It will be similar to the vision, planning, and construction of the Interstate Highway System.
UASs are already working in the commercial world, taking photos of agricultural fields, orchards, utility lines, pipelines, sporting events, real estate, construction operations, deliveries, movie making, news coverage, search and rescue, and more.
Prior to the pandemic, Airbus announced a flying car prototype. The Chinese began testing their UAS systems as taxis.
The future is closer than any of us can imagine
Technology, once it is created and free for unfettered innovation, will surprise even today’s experts. We may see a Jetsons-like UAS platform. It will carry passengers, guided by GPS, equipped with sense-and-avoid technology and operate totally autonomously. The vision has already been announced and is being tested in other countries.
It is time that the US gets ready for the future of a new level of transportation. The new Congress needs to develop an overview of the National Airspace System. We need a roadmap to get new technology under control and working for all Americans.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 12 years with Congress, the Department of Transportation, and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the first consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.