FAA told to make room for RC planes & drones

Feb 09, 2012 15 Comments by

This USA Today story has more information on the legislatation that pass the House and Senate and would require the FAA to ensure ways for drones to safely share airspace with piloted aircraft. This, of course, also affects RC airplanes and helicopters.  

Within a few years, that flying object overhead might not be a bird or a plane, but an unmanned aircraft.

Drones, perhaps best known for their combat missions in Afghanistan, are increasingly looking to share room in U.S. skies with passenger planes. And that’s prompting safety concerns.

Right now, remote-controlled drones are used in the U.S. mostly by the military and Customs and Border Patrol in restricted airspace.

Now, organizations from police forces searching for missing persons to academic researchers counting seals on the polar ice cap are eager to launch drones weighing a few pounds to some the size of a jetliner in the same airspace as passenger planes.

On Monday, the Senate sent to President Obama legislation that would require the Federal Aviation Administration to devise ways for that to happen safely in three years.

“It’s about coming up with a plan where everybody can get along,” says Doug Marshall, a New Mexico State University professor helping develop regulations and standards. “Nobody wants to get hurt. Nobody wants to cause an accident.”

The drones’ appeal is they can fly anywhere it’s too dangerous or remote for people, and they cost less than piloted helicopters or planes.

In Mesa County, Colo., for example, sheriff’s deputies have negotiated a special agreement with the FAA to fly a 2-pound helicopter up to 400 feet above ground so a camera can snap pictures of crime scenes or accidents. An infrared camera helps deputies track a missing person or a suspect in an overgrown ravine.

“It’s a tool in the toolbox,” says Ben Miller, the program’s manager.

‘Huge potential market’

One reason advocates expect police to adopt drones is they’re less expensive than manned helicopters. A Draganflyer X6 drone such as the one Mesa uses costs about $36,000. Another squad car, for instance, costs about $50,000, Miller says.

“There is a huge potential market for civilian and commercial uses of unmanned aircraft systems,” says Ben Gielow, general counsel for the industry group Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

The market will almost double over the next decade to $11.3 billion, according to a March estimate by the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va., which analyzes the aerospace and defense industries.

Commercial pilots have raised safety concerns. Although pilots are required to spend time flying planes and are tested on their abilities to hold licenses, no similar rules exist for the controllers of remote aircraft. Likewise, the FAA doesn’t certify drones like passenger planes against engine failure or wings falling off.

Capt. Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, says the people who remotely control aircraft should meet the same training and qualifications as regular pilots. His group is also concerned about controllers losing contact with drones.

“We have a long way to go,” Moak says of having drones fly safely with passenger jets.

Despite their many successful flights in Afghanistan, drones occasionally crash.

In August, for instance, an unmanned Shadow drone collided with a C-130 cargo plane. The cargo plane had to make an emergency landing at a base in eastern Afghanistan, but nobody was injured.

A drone occasionally goes awry here, too. In August 2010, the military considered shooting down a Navy Fire Scout drone that wandered close to restricted airspace near Washington, D.C., after controllers lost their link to the drone. But controllers regained contact.

Smaller drones need rules

The legislation calls for the FAA to set up six experimental locations where drones can fly. Competition for them and the high-paying jobs among researchers and manufacturers they’re expected to attract has already begun.

“Members are already jockeying for their particular area,” says Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, co-chairman of a House caucus of 49 members who advocate using drones.

The legislation also calls on the FAA to establish rules for smaller drones weighing up to 55 pounds within 27 months. The schedule for all drones is Sept. 30, 2015.

A key unresolved question is how to avoid collisions. The philosophy since the Wright brothers has been for pilots to “see and avoid” other aircraft. Without a pilot on board, the strategy for drones is “sense and avoid,” perhaps giving off a signal that other planes receive.

“You’ve got to find a way to apply today’s technology to regulations that were written many years ago,” says Bobby Sturgell, a former FAA head and now a senior vice president for Rockwell Collins, which makes navigational and other equipment for drones. “The message behind the legislation is, ‘Let’s make this happen.’ “

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15 Responses to “FAA told to make room for RC planes & drones”

  1. Stan D. says:

    The reason Mesa County Sheriff’s department were given permission to fly under 400 feet is because this is the same rule that remote control modelers adhere to. Manned aircraft are restricted to fly higher than 400 feet except near airports or by filing a notam with the FAA. This assures clear airspace for both types of aircraft. The members of the Aircraft Modelers Association (AMA) follow many rules to keep RC models & drones out of the airspace used by manned aircraft.

  2. Ken T. says:

    I’m assuming you mean the Academy of Model Aeronautics. There is no chance of an accident with a model aircraft if the rules of the AMA and commen sense are followed.

  3. Gary says:

    Please!!! How many you’re-tube videos are there with RC planes over 400ft……..hundreds! There are pilots that follow the rules, but honestly, most do not.

  4. rcmodeler724 says:

    And how many of those videos are made by people that are not members of the AMA or even know what it is. With all the websites that have RTF models available, there are a large number of new pilots that go out to a field somewhere and throw a RC model into the air. Some manage to keep the plane up but fly barely under control and eventually crash. These are the same one who finally figure out how to control the plane and then play the “let’s see how high we can go” or fly one into the Goodyear Blimp, yes that did happen in CA some years back. Then there are the ones who don’t user their head and realize that these same model planes and helicopters can actually hurt someone and the carelessly go to the local park and fly over or buzz others trying to enjoy the park. These are the ones that cause issues with the hobby and loss of flying locations. It is up to the AMA and it’s members to educate and provide SAFE demonstrations of our hobby so that we can continue to enjoy it. Every time I read about or see something that is clearly a safety issue or one that could degrade the image of the hobby, I speak up or post what the individuals should be doing and inform them of the AMA. We need to continue to police ourselves as we have done for many years but also watch out for those ignorant of what the hobby means and is all about.

    • Anonymous says:

      400 feet is not the altitude limit for rc airplanes. The rules simply state do not fly higher than 400 feet when within 3 miles of an airport without first notifying the tower. Maybe the reason for all the 400 foot “rulebreakers” on youtube is because they are outside of three miles of an airport, or, they notified the tower and have an agreement to go above 400 with the airport tower when within the three miles. Am I missing something?

    • Larry Launstein Jr says:

      I agree with your comments completely. When I fly at my local park, I make sure there is nobody too nearby, nor do I go buzz people. If in doubt, fly somewhere else more wide open. I’m an AMA member too, despite being a new pilot. I was fortunate to get in with a group that preaches common sense as I learn to fly. I will be joining their club soon.

  5. Bob says:

    I am a retired pilot for a major airline and an avid RC pilot. I hope the FAA is not over-thinking this issue. The FAR’s prohibit flying lower than 1000′ AGL over populated areas and lower than 500′ over sparsely populated areas, unless the aircraft is on an approach to landing at an airfield. The airspace around airfields is charted on easily obtainable graphic items, such as Sectional charts that are paper or digital. So, if RC/UAV pilots make themselves aware of the “floor” where they are flying and keep their planes below these “floors” and 1:1 pilots keep their aircraft above these same floors, there is no problem. If the pilots violate the floors they get violated, whether they are RC, UAV or 1:1 pilots. Easy. KISS!!!!

    • Robert Boulanger says:

      Robert b
      KISS is not in any government entities protocols, I work for the DOD and they make everything so complicated that most of them can not fulfill the standards they have created LOL.

      I agree with BOB (KISS)would work, but I highly doubt that will occur.

  6. Bob says:

    In response to Bob , the retired airline pilot,

    He gave the best reply ever given….. Very simple….
    Like he said ……….K I S S

  7. G. E. Horton says:

    When did God give possession of the air I breath, work in, and play in to the FAA ?

  8. dave says:

    When separtion between aircraft was given to FAA who thinknthey are god

  9. dave says:

    WHEN AIRCRAFT SEPARATION BECAME THE RESPONSIBLITY OF THE FAA. WHO THINK THEY ARE GOD

  10. Ed More AMA # L N8192B says:

    We all hope that this NPRM on sUAS will not overburden the modeling world. People who comment need to be more inclusive of their remarks. Free flight models and RC Soaring models frequently exceed 400 feet of altitude to stay in thermals. We all exercise due caution at club flying sites. The point is simply regulate where there is a hazard such as nearby an operating airport. Leave the rest to the demonstrated good judgement of the past and present.

    Commercial sUAS’s are the purvue of the FAA in the NAS. (period) The only commercial activity of the AMA is selling model builder paraphenalia to it’s members. The rest is hobby activity as far as flying goes. (period)

  11. Rick says:

    There is NOT a ceiling of 500 ft for full scale airplanes!!!
    A pilot must stay 500 ft AWAY form people and buildings. That 500 ft can be horizontal, not just vertical. And yes, I am a pilot of both full scale and RC aircraft.

  12. Jayson Stonne says:

    I am a film producer and I would like to use a drone to film a birds eye view of my scene for an exterior establishing shot. The location is with a mile of Burbank Airport, does anyone know the maximum height allowed?

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