I know many readers would disagree when I say that electric aviation is not the future. But, when you hear me go on to say that electric aviation is the present, you realize I’m not poo poo-ing electric aviation, but I may be too optimistic. The fact is: yes, electric aviation is already here. While we won’t see an electric version of a 747 any time soon, flights that once went to planes that guzzle dirty leaded avgas or kerosene are now often happening with battery-electric “drones”.
(Officially, they’re Small Unmanned Aerial Systems or sUAS, and aren’t drones because they require a pilot, but that’s all semantics)
Why Drones Can’t Legally Fly Far From Their Pilots
While drones have been making a big impact on industry and public safety, and have even saved lives, they’ve largely been subject to one huge limitation: they can’t legally go very far from the operator. FAA rules require that they stay within “visual line of sight,” which means you can not only see the drone as a little speck in the air, but actually know which way it’s facing. You also can’t use your view from the camera or other telemetry to do this.
The maximum distance most pilots can lawfully go is about a quarter mile, but this varies depending on the drone (it’s easier to see larger ones from further away) and on conditions, among other things.
Why does the FAA do this? It goes back to a 1956 mid-air collision of two airliners that occurred over the Grand Canyon. Due to a series of misunderstandings and errors, the planes ended up at the same altitude flying over the same area and didn’t get any warning that another plane was in the area. By the time the pilots saw each other’s planes, it was too late to act (one pilot seems to have tried), and the planes tore each other up in the sky. Both planes fell into the canyon, and nobody on either plane survived.
After the accident, a number of important reforms happened. One was the creation of the FAA itself. Another thing was that this accident, the first to kill over 100 people, led to much greater awareness of the risks of mid-air collisions. While a variety of changes to procedure happened, the FAA didn’t want pilots to rely on others for safety. In addition to other safety measures, every aircraft’s pilot is required to “see and avoid” other aircraft. This rule applies to all aircraft, even drones.
With a drone, you’re not riding inside, so you’ve got to be able to see not only other aircraft, but the drone, too. That way you can both see and take evasive action. So, you can’t fly it too far away before you aren’t really able to do that anymore.
This Sucks, So Changes Are Happening
Not being able to fly drones long distances makes it hard to do things people want to do. Drone deliveries, some search and rescue operations, and even some kinds of photography are difficult or impossible to do under current rules.
One way around the “see and avoid” rule is to get a waiver from the FAA. To get a waiver, you’ve got to be able to prove to the agency that you’ve found adequate other ways to detect other aircraft and avoid collisions. A few different methods for doing this have been approved by the agency, but the approvals have all been limited in scope, often by distance or altitude. Public safety agencies also have some limited legal ability to operate beyond line of sight, but only relatively close to the ground.
The agency does want to allow pilots to do more, so they’re working on making rules to allow more people to go further without having to apply for a waiver. That rulemaking process is in progress right now, and the agency is reaching out looking for input from the public. While you can send in comments like in any other federal rulemaking process, they recently held a live event to get input, which you can watch here:
One important point Jay Merkle, the Executive Director of the UAS Integration Office at the FAA, made was that the FAA rules have been made over decades based on manned aviation assumptions. Regulatory processes move slowly, and things like the “see and avoid” rule are important, but weren’t made with unmanned or uncrewed aircraft in mind.
Improving the situation for drone pilots will require moving away from old assumptions and into a future that keeps things safe while regulating based on the reality of drones. To get there, the FAA first put a group of people (called ARC) who represent different stakeholders in this process, and had them produce recommendations. You can read the whole report here (it’s long), or you can read a summary here. But, the FAA can’t go making rules based only on the opinions of people they picked, so they opened the process up and held an online meeting (video above).
Comments from not only pilots, but the general public can be sent to 9-FAA-UAS-BVLOS@faa.gov until June 29th, 2022 to be considered in the rulemaking process. So, if you’ve got any ideas, be sure to send them in!
Some Notable Comments The Agency Got In The Online Meeting
The first guy who commented represented “cropdusters,” or pilots for dropping aerial applications of chemicals, seeds, fire retardants, and more on crops and land. Cropdusters have been antagonistic to drone pilots in the past, as they often fly low where drones are allowed to fly. He played up the importance of his industry, and then expressed fears that the recommendations would cause safety issues for cropdusters.
It’s worth noting that he left something important out: that cropdusters are afraid that unmanned aircraft will replace manned cropdusting planes. So, his comments are financially motivated and should be considered in that context, but we should look for anything good in his comments that we can.
Several representatives of organizations representing industry that wants the final rule to reflect the ARC report (linked above) spoke favorably of the report. As with the cropduster industry rep, we should keep in mind that these views are also motivated by financial considerations. These groups also provide valuable perspectives that should be considered, too.
Another commenter representing the helicopter industry took issue with excluding BVLOS drones only from an area within 1/2 of a nautical mile from heliports. He thinks the ARC recommendations would still create risks, and don’t include many other designated areas where helicopters land and take off that aren’t published, including some heliports that didn’t make the list for whatever reason. Information is often incorrect and out of date, making it difficult for pilots to coordinate with the heliport.
A representative for experimental pilots wants the FAA to always put manned aircraft first in any regulations, like the cropduster representative, and had ideas similar to the representative for helicopter pilots. She also had concerns that low altitude aircraft could have to spend money for collision avoidance equipment, as ADSB is either inadequate or not possible.
A Complicated Issue
If you listened to the whole thing, it’s clear that this isn’t a simple issue. There are existing users who have safety needs, people who could lose livelihoods, and great benefits that would come from expanding long range drone flights. Balancing all of this in a final rule is not going to be an easy task for the FAA.
Featured Image: A view of construction in El Paso, Texas. Permission was required to fly in this area (airport rules), a helicopter came through while images were being taken, and there are many things in the view that you can’t fly over. Image by Jennifer Sensiba.
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