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Better Never Than Late: The FAA Publishes The NPRM for Small Unmanned Airborne Systems

 

Back at the end of January this year, when an allegedly drunken government employee crashed a Phantom quadcopter into the lawn of The Big White House We Burned, it allegedly triggered someone there to call the FAA and deliver a “WTF! Do something!! Digitus extractus!” message. (For non-Brits, this means "Get your finger out" in schoolboy approximate-Latin).

 

But things got stranger.

 

On February 13th, a chap named Steve Zeets, who had filed for a Section 333 Exemption to operate unmanned airborne systems (UAS) commercially for land surveying, was checking the U.S. government web site, www.regulations.gov to find out the status of his exemption request. But he stumbled upon an 89-page long economic analysis of the as-yet-unpublished and long-awaited NPRM. As he read through the document, he realized he’d found the first tangible evidence of the NPRM. He quickly mentioned the document to a friend, but by the time his friend got to the web site, the document had been removed. Fortunately, Steve still had a copy open on his computer, so he saved it to his Google Docs account where it remains to this day.

 

Then the unmanned airborne vehicle community got word of the

document via email and a tweet and that provoked a flurry of activity

as we rushed to download this mystery document -- the first tangible

evidence of the long awaited (and long overdue) NPRM.

 

On Saturday, 14th of February, we got word that the FAA was holding a

public press conference on Sunday morning. Sunday?  Really?

Monday was a national holiday, so the Federal Government was having

a press conference on a long weekend? It felt like a shotgun wedding…

 

The press conference announcement came equipped with a dial-in number, but come the appointed time, everyone got a recorded message that there was no conference event (the AT&T conference bridge had collapsed under the load of the number of callers). Then word came out via Twitter and text messages, “use this number XXXX, the password is XXXX,” so we did. We then discovered that the number was the speakers’ dial-in number and we were on the line with Anthony Foxx, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, and Michael Huerta, the FAA’s Administrator – but nobody dared say anything even when Mr Huerta’s chief-of-staff came on the line several times asking “is there anyone on this line?” as she frantically tried to figure out what as going on.

 

The press conference, when it finally started, was unremarkable and never strayed beyond the usual self-congratulatory scripted comments, and studiously ignored the large guilty-looking elephant in the room with a sign that said, “The NPRM is years late.”

 

Nevertheless, there it was; the NPRM itself was on-line by the end of the press conference, although not an official document until it was published in the Federal Register a week later.

 

One doesn’t need to read too far into the NPRM to realize that it exudes ignorance of UAS, naiveté regarding their operations, and has a distinct odor of having being rushed to completion by overworked interns, some of whom might have been sober at the time.

 

So what does the NPRM actually say? Well, if you want the really detailed story, you may be interested in my rather lengthy comments.

 

If you're interested, but not 109-pages' worth of interested, here are the headlines. [The comments in brackets are my editorial comments. Caveat: Pour yourself a nice glass of wine and hunker down, folks...]

 

  1. Small Unmanned Airborne Systems (sUAS) must weigh less than 55 lbs. If they weigh less than 4 lbs, they are Micro UAS (mUAS).
  2. UAS must only be operated below 500 feet above ground level (mUAS, 400 feet), slower than 87 knots airspeed during daylight hours [how do multi-rotor aircraft measure airspeed?], sUAS need permission to operate near airports (mUAS not allowed), and within the pilot’s visual line of sight (“VLOS”). VLOS is defined as the pilot must be “capable of seeing the aircraft” with unaided vision (beyond spectacles). [This definition says nothing about being able to discern aircraft orientation – seeing the UAS as small dot in the sky is apparently acceptable even though you cannot safely fly it.]
  3. sUAS must not be operated from moving vehicles (other than boats). [But the operator can walk or run while operating. Boats on oceans, lakes, ponds or rivers with UAS over land are permitted.]
  4. UAS operations are not allowed in prohibited or restricted airspace.
  5. FPV can be used as an aid, but not in place of VLOS. [FAA clearly does not realize how FPV helps pilot maintain UAS orientation and stay “in the loop” thus enhancing safety.]
  6. mUAS must be made out of frangible materials that break, distort, or yield on impact and thus are safer. [No scientific basis provided.]
  7. sUAS must not “operate over people” [an undefined term],  mUAS can operate over people. [An sUAS flying at 86 knots horizontally can be flying “not over people” but will transcribe a parabolic arc that may crash it into people.]
  8. UAS pilots will be called operators because they are not pilots. [Hmmm. Is this a way to get around some existing legal definition?]
  9. UAS “operators” will require an FAA issued airman’s certificate. [Current law requires this.]
  10. sUAS pilots must be over 17 years old (no upper limit), pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test, and a refresher test every two years. mUAS pilots will self-certify that they have the required knowledge and need not be tested.
  11. Knowledge test candidates need to travel to the nearest FAA Flight Safety District Office where the test will be administered.
  12. Pilots need not have any actual flight training, flight experience, nor need they pass a flight proficiency test. [This seems really suspect. How does this help reduce the risk to the public?]
  13. Pilots do not need medical certificates but can self-certify they are healthy and of sound mind. [What? Me crazy? Bwahaha.]
  14. All UAS must be registered with the FAA. [Except those flown for hobby or recreational purposes.]
  15. UAS must bear registration markings like other aircraft allowing for smaller size.
  16. Any documents/records the FAA requires about the pilot/aircraft must be made available to the FAA on request.
  17. Accidents must be reported to the FAA within ten days [not to the National Transportation Safety Board?]
  18. Pilots must perform a preflight inspection before every flight. [That’s every flight even when changing flight batteries.]
  19. No requirement for a visual observer (VO) to assist the operator, but a VO can be used to help the operator maintain situation awareness and provide VLOS of the aircraft.
  20. The VO can communicate with the operator by radio.
  21. Multiple VOs cannot be “daisy chained” to extend the VLOS of the aircraft.
  22. VOs do not require any training. [Presumably the operator will provide some kind of training?]
  23. No airworthiness inspections or certification of UAS. [So nobody tests to see these things can fly safely?]
  24. sUAS meeting the FAA’s requirements will not pose a risk to the public or threat to national security. [Seems to assume that terrorists would never think of strapping a few ounces of C4 to a UAS.]
  25. UAS pilots are responsible for avoiding manned aircraft. [Assumes pilot’s perception of height, distance, speed, and track are sufficiently good to actually do this.]
  26. Because UAS are smaller they pose less risk to the public. [Bogus logic because calculating risk demands considering the number of UAS flight operations, not just the safety of a single UAS.]
  27. UAS cannot be used for transporting persons or property. [Bad luck, Amazon!]
  28. UAS cannot have external loads or be used for towing. [A multi-rotor helicopter’s camera gimbal is an external load, isn’t it?]
  29. For operation over congested areas, the UAS pilot must ask people to stay in their homes. [Surely you are joking? That involves several hundred to over a thousand people in populated areas depending on which city you consider.]
  30. UAS must land with a reserve of five minutes flight time. [Regardless of the total flight time that the UAS can achieve? If the total flight time is, say, seven minutes, then the aircraft can only be airborne for two minutes?]
  31. Pilots incapable of speech may not be permitted to use a Visual Observer or conduct flight operations requiring other crew. [Perverse and reverse logic? This is when the VO and other crew members would be really helpful, isn't it?]

 

The biggest criticisms of the NPRM are that the FAA failed to consider:

 

  1. What the lack of flight training and flight-testing for pilots will do for the safety of manned aircraft and the general public.
  2. The limits of human perception from the pilot’s point of view – there is no human sense accurate enough to judge height, speed, and distance of an UAS (or a manned aircraft viewed from the ground) to the required levels of accuracy.
  3. The FAA completely fails to consider the potentially disastrous effects of “control reversal” and the complexities that that adds. Have any of them actually flown an UAS? When control reversal hits (when, say, the nose of the aircraft points back at the operator), without proper experience, that aircraft is doomed to crash.
  4. Multi-rotor helicopters. The FAA only appears to have given detailed consideration to fixed-wing aircraft. Multi-rotor helicopters are barely mentioned – and when they are, the FAA gets it badly wrong.
  5. Requiring a mandatory fail-safe “return to takeoff point” when the aircraft detects loss of control link. What happens on loss of control is left to the operator who “must ensure” that the UAS poses “no undue hazard.”
  6. Preprogrammed waypoints that permit UAS to fly entire missions autonomously.
  7. Kinetic energy of impacts rather than airspeed (and multi-rotor aircraft cannot easily detect airspeed!)
  8. The effect of solar weather on the GPS and the resulting failures that may occur (such as the inability to return to the takeoff point).
  9. UAS operated by untrained pilots may well end up over people.
  10. UAS pilots asking people to stay indoors for flights in congested areas is laughably impracticable.
  11. No international reciprocity (which does exist for manned aircraft): e.g. No provisions for BNUC-S rated UK pilots to fly UAS in the USA even though these pilots will have had actual flight training and flight proficiency testing.

 

The FAA also makes several assertions so decidedly dodgy that they make an experienced UAS pilot wince:

 

  1. UAS pilots “could land a small unmanned rotorcraft simply by pressing the altitude joystick down until the rotorcraft descends to the ground.” This is one of the best methods known to destroy the aircraft.
  2. UAS are relatively easy to control, and easier to land (compared to manned aircraft). This author, being a light aircraft, glider, self-launching sailplane, and multi-rotor UAS pilot, is the proud owner of a largish box of broken UAS parts that speak eloquently to the contrary.
  3. In an emergency, UAS pilots “should be” able to land the UAS “promptly” and in compliance with FAA regulations. In theory, yes. In practice, not quite so easy.
  4. A UAS’s “confined operational area” is not that confined – the operator can walk briskly during a flight and cover a very large area, or operate from a boat on a river or pond and extend the area.
  5. An UAS ground controller is very simple. Some certainly are. Many are not. All pilots need to acquire muscle-memory for where all the controls and switches are (you daren’t look down!).

 

And that’s where we stand right now. The public comment period closed on April 24th, 2015 – the FAA was rumored to be anticipating 100,000 people to submit comments. As of April 11th, only 3,638 comments have been posted, mostly from individuals. Sadly, several comments are to the effect that “The gub’mint gotta keep its hands off m’drones. I has guns,” or “Nobody’s gonna fly drones over my private property. I has guns too.” Many more are basically form letters submitted by the members of the Academy of Model Aeronautics -- in fact, by number, most of the comments are from AMA members. The scary thing is that so few organizations submitted any substantive comments. They either do not care or have other means for influencing the FAA (anyone else thinking via Congress and political contributions?)

 

My personal favorite is the charming comment (apparently from a young person):

 

I think that drones should be able to be used and where at anytime. I also think there should not be an age limit or maybe just a younger age limit because 17 is really old to pilot a drone. I also think it should be legal every state because after all they are all toys.

 

Out of the mouths of babes oft come gems, eh?

 

The comments that have been submitted on the NPRM are here.

 

 

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