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Shared Airspace: Nightmare at 20k Feet?

Can you imagine looking out the window on your next flight and seeing a unmanned vehicle? (Perhaps some of you expected me to say “gremlin”, recalling William Shatner’s performance as Bob Wilson in The Twilight Zone’s famous “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” episode.)

Military organizations and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) proponents are working diligently to gain the use of civilian/commercial airspace for testing and training activities. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), on the other hand, has been somewhat resistant to the proposition.

In the United States alone, approximately 50 companies, universities, and government organizations are developing and producing roughly 155 unmanned aircraft designs, according to an FAA spokesperson. “The introduction of UASs into the NAS is challenging for the FAA and the aviation community. UAS proponents have a growing interest in expediting access to the NAS. The FAA’s main concern about UAS operations in the National Airspace System (NAS) is safety. The NAS encompasses an average of more than 100,000 aviation operations per day, including commercial air traffic, cargo operations, and business jets. Additionally, there are more than 238,000 general aviation aircraft in the system at any time. It is critical that aircraft do not endanger other users of the NAS or compromise the safety of persons or property on the ground.”


The NAS, considered to be one of the world’s most complex aviation systems, enables safe air travel via roughly 14,500 air traffic controllers, 4,500 aviation safety inspectors, 5,800 technicians, 19,000 airports, 600 air traffic control facilities, 41,000 total NAS operational facilities, and more than 71,000 pieces of equipment.

“More safety data is needed before the FAA can make an informed decision to fully integrate UASs (unmanned aerial systems) into the NAS, where the public travels each day,” adds the FAA spokesperson. “The design of many UASs makes them difficult to see and adequate “detect, sense and avoid” technology is years away. Decisions being made about UAS airworthiness and operational requirements must fully address safety implications of UASs flying in the same airspace as manned aircraft, and perhaps more importantly, aircraft with passengers.”

Henry “Hank” Krakowski, chief operating officer for the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, has been quoted as saying: “These are unusual vehicles to enter in to the national airspace system; they were designed for typically the war theater.” UAVs are actively being developed for and deployed in military environments; however, unmanned systems are increasingly being employed for civilian uses, such as “combating drug trafficking over federal lands, aiding in search and rescue operations, firefighting and improving border security,” admits a report on the FAA’s Web site. The FBI, the Office of Homeland Security, and various law-enforcement agencies are investigating the use of UAVs for surveillance and other tasks.

Mil/aero technology companies are currently working diligently to enhance the capabilities and safety-critical operation of UAVs. Many mil/aero firms are vying for federal contracts to help solve existing challenges. Mil/aero businesses are also proactively seeking FAA requirements and standards guidance, advice, and information. If you’re involved in one of these organizations or require more information on DO-178 and DO-254, this geek has some good news for you (stay tuned for the next blog).

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