I know that many readers will not agree if I say that electric aviation is not the future. But when you hear me say that electric aviation is the current one, you understand that I am not engaged in electric aviation, but I can be very optimistic. The fact is: yes, electric aviation is already here. Although we haven’t seen the electric version of the 747 in the near future, flights to planes that once leaked dirty lead gas or kerosene are now often powered by battery-powered electric drones.
(Officially, they are Small Unmanned Aerial Systems or sUASs and are not drones because a pilot is required, but they are all semantics)
Why drones can’t legally fly away from their pilots
Although drones have a major impact on industrial and public safety, and even save lives, they are largely subject to one major limitation: they cannot legally go too far from the operator. FAA rules require them to remain in the “line of sight”, which means that you can not only see the drone as a small spot in the air, but also know which way it is looking. You also can’t use your camera or other telemetry to do this.
The maximum distance that most pilots can legally travel is about a quarter of a mile, but this varies depending on the drone (larger ones are easier to see from a distance) and conditions.
Why is the FAA doing this? This goes back to 1956, when two planes collided in the air over the Grand Canyon. Due to a number of misunderstandings and errors, the planes flew at the same altitude in the same area and did not receive any warning that there was another aircraft in the same area. When the pilots saw each other’s planes, it was too late to move (apparently a pilot tried) and the planes tore each other apart in the sky. Both planes crashed into the canyon and no one on either survived.
A number of important reforms took place after the accident. One of them was the creation of the FAA itself. Another thing was that the first accident, which killed more than 100 people, led to more information about the risks of air collisions. Despite various changes in the procedure, the FAA did not want pilots to rely on others for safety. In addition to other security measures, each pilot is required to “see and flee” other aircraft. This rule applies to all aircraft, even drones.
You don’t get on a drone, so you have to be able to see not only other planes, but also drones. So you can both see and take action to avoid it. So you can’t fly too far until you can do it anymore.
This is bad, so changes happen
The inability to fly drones over long distances makes it difficult for people to do what they want to do. Delivery of drones, some search and rescue operations and even some types of photography are difficult or impossible under the existing rules.
One way to look and weigh is to give up the FAA. To refuse, you must be able to prove to the agency that you have found adequate other ways to detect other planes and avoid collisions. Several different methods for doing this have been approved by the agency, but all approvals are limited in scope, often distance or height. Public security agencies also have some limited legal capacity to operate out of sight, but only relatively close to the ground.
The agency wants to allow pilots to do more, so they are working on rules that allow more people to go further without applying for a waiver. The process of creating this rule is currently underway and the agency is seeking public opinion. As with any other federal rule-making process, you can post comments, but they recently held a live event to gain access, which you can watch here:
One of the highlights noted by Jay Merkle, Executive Director of the UAS Integration Office at the FAA, is the adoption of FAA rules based on decades of human aviation assumptions. Regulatory processes are slow, and things like the “see and run” rule are important, but unmanned or unmanned aircraft are not taken into account.
To improve the situation for drone pilots, it is necessary to move away from old assumptions and move towards a future that keeps everything safe during adjustment based on the reality of drones. To get there, the FAA first put together a group of people (called ARCs) representing various stakeholders in the process and prepared recommendations from them. You can read the whole report here (long) or you can read the summary here. However, the FAA cannot develop rules based solely on the opinions of the people they choose, so they opened the process and held an online meeting (video above).
Comments not only from the pilots but also from the general public can be sent to [email protected] by June 29, 2022 for consideration in the rules development process. So if you have any ideas, don’t forget to send them!
Some Notable Comments About The Agency’s Online Meeting
The first commentator represented “farmers” or pilots to throw chemicals, seeds, fire retardants, and more from the air into crops and the ground. In the past, farmers were hostile to drone pilots because drones often flew low where they were allowed to fly. He stressed the importance of the industry and then said he feared the recommendations would cause security problems for producers.
It should be noted that he left out one important thing: farmers are afraid that drones will replace manned agricultural aircraft. Thus, his comments are materially motivated and should be taken into account in this context, but we must look for the best in his comments.
Several representatives of industry organizations (mentioned above) who wanted the final rule to reflect the ARC report spoke positively of the report. As a representative of the crop industry, we must also take into account that these views also come from financial considerations. These groups also offer valuable perspectives to consider.
Another commentator representing the helicopter industry faced the problem of removing BVLOS drones from helicopters only within half a mile of the sea. He believes that the ARC recommendations will still pose risks and do not include many other designated areas where helicopters land and take off, including some heliports that are not on the list for any reason. The information is often inaccurate and outdated, making it difficult for pilots to coordinate with helicopters.
The representative for experimental pilots wants the FAA to always prioritize pilots in any order, for example, a cropduster representative and a representative for helicopter pilots. He was also concerned that low-altitude aircraft might have to spend money on equipment to prevent a collision, as ADSB is either inadequate or impossible.
If you listen to everything, it is clear that this is not a simple matter. There are great benefits to be gained from existing users in need of security, people who could lose their livelihoods, and the expansion of long-distance drone flights. It will not be easy for the FAA to finally balance all this.
Selected Image: Construction view of El Paso, Texas. Permission was required to fly in this area (airport rules), a helicopter passed while filming, and there is so much in sight that you can’t fly. Photo by Jennifer Sensiba.
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