FAA vs UAV / UAS – The Myths, Misinformation and Missing Links

There is no doubt that the development and use of small unmanned aerial vehicles and systems (sUAV / UAS, aka drones) is exploding; from taking lofty real-estate pictures and videos, inspecting construction sites, buildings, transmission lines, towers, bridges, and other infrastructures, farm field surveys, search and rescue, emergency response to potential personal transportation and more. There is a number of organizations that are playing a significant role in shaping the application and use of this technology as well. Although these groups may have the best of intentions, their collective implementation to date has been problematic and an increasing source of myths and misinformation. The subsequent confusion and misunderstanding, without correction, will lead to endangering the realistic and safe use of UAV / UAS operations.

Brief History

  • Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), established 1936
  • Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA), establish 1938
  • Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), established 1958
  • Congress 2012 mandates the FAA to create a plan for allowing UAS integration into commercial airspace; aka the National Airspace System (NAS).
  • FAA Modernization and Reform Act February 14, 2012
  • FAA September 25, 2014 – August 28, 2016, 333 exemptions (manned aircraft license required to fly drones commercially)
  • February 15, 2015, Notice of Propose Rulemaking (NPRM) new rules for drone operations
  • December 21, 2015, Interim Rule (registration requirements)
  • June 21, 2016, effective August 29, 2016, Part 107 regulatory framework enacted (replaces 333 exemption)
  • Drone Federalism Act of 2017, State regulatory authority regarding drone operations

Key Players

  • Congress
  • Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
  • Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA)
  • Manned Aircraft Pilots (MAP)
  • Limited Recreational Operators (LRO), fly radio controlled (RC) model aircraft for fun
  • Remote Certificated Pilot (RCP), part 107 commercial operator (aka accidental aviators AAs)
  • Community Based Organization (CBO), nationally known set of RC flight rules
  • Drone System Manufactures and other for-profit industry stakeholders (DSM)

Areas of Misinformation

  • Visual Line of Site (VLOS) and its permutations:
    • Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS)
    • Extended Visual Line of Site (EVLOS), use of Visual Observer (VO)
    • Tactical Beyond Visual Line of Sight (TBVLOS), first responders
  • 14 CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) Part 91 RCP’s claim these rules don’t apply to them (hint: they do)
  • Night flight and use of Anti-Collision Lights (ACLs)
  • Flight over people and open-air gatherings
  • Flight over populated, sparsely populated and unpopulated areas
  • Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC)
  • Flight in Class airspace (B, C, D, E)
  • Certificate of Waiver (COW) and Certificate of Authorization (COA)
  • Remote Identification (RID with no chance of success using WiFi or Bluetooth protocols)
  • Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B) IN and OUT
  • Accidents and Loss of Control (LOC) issues and reporting
  • Aircraft airworthiness

The FAA’s charter is the oversight and safe utilization of the NAS for all who use it. Air Traffic Control (ATC) aids us MAPs by providing another set of eyes which is most reassuring when flying in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) and busy VMC airspace, The FAA also publishes the Federal Aviation Regulations and Airman Information Manual (FAR / AIM, the 1100+ page, flight rules bible) that we MAPs labor to learn. But for all the compliments I give the FAA when flying instruments, they really come up short in the drone area.

The problems are innumerable. It begins by staffing their drone departments with personnel who have little to no knowledge of flying RC aircraft. It is rare that they have even set their hands on transmitter sticks. This situation is further exacerbated by individuals outside the FAA who claim to have the expertise the FAA lacks but upon closer examination perpetuate the same misinformation, due to a knowledge deficiency, that they and the FAA are supposed to make sure are accurate and correct.

For example, concerning LROs, the FAA states “We have not yet begun officially recognizing CBOs. Recreational flyers are directed to follow the safety guidelines of existing aeromodelling organizations or use the FAA provided safety guidelines per Advisory Circular 91-57B.” As noted above the AMA has been in operation decades longer than the FAA. As such they have developed extensive knowledge, procedures, flight safety rules, and actual inflight training for flying RC aircraft (also known as drones). The AMA is considered the de-facto national, Community Based Organization (CBO). Why not use AMA’s extensive and well-developed safety code?

Concerning COW / COA “Waiver processing times will vary depending on the complexity of the request. We encourage applicants to submit waiver requests well in advance of when they need a waiver – 90 days is strongly encouraged.” Currently, 90 days is a kiss of death. Customers aren’t willing to wait that long. But as a MAP, I can file an Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) flight plan and obtain immediate approval. Why the disparity?

Here is another, 107-2a, Section 5.9, VLOS Aircraft Operations.

“The remote PIC and person manipulating the controls must be able to see the small, unmanned aircraft at all times during flight (§ 107.31). The small, unmanned aircraft must be operated closely enough to ensure visibility requirements are met during small UAS operations. This requirement also applies to the VO, if used, during the aircraft operation. The person maintaining VLOS may have brief moments in which he or she is not looking directly at or cannot see the small, unmanned aircraft, but still retains the capability to see the small, unmanned aircraft or quickly maneuver it back to VLOS. These moments may be necessary for the remote PIC to look at the controller to determine remaining battery life or for operational awareness. Should the remote PIC or person manipulating the controls lose VLOS of the small, unmanned aircraft, he or she must regain VLOS as soon as practicable.

Even though the remote PIC may briefly lose sight of the small, unmanned aircraft, the remote PIC always has the see-and-avoid responsibilities set out in §§ 107.31 and 107.37. The circumstances that may prevent a remote PIC from fulfilling those responsibilities will vary, depending on factors such as the type of small UAS, the operational environment, and distance between the remote PIC and the small, unmanned aircraft. For this reason, no specific time interval exists in which interruption of VLOS is permissible, as it would have the effect of potentially allowing a hazardous interruption of the operation. If the remote PIC cannot regain VLOS, the remote PIC or person manipulating the controls should follow pre-determined procedures for the loss of VLOS.

The capabilities of the small UAS will govern the remote PIC’s determination as to the appropriate course of action. For example, the remote PIC may need to land the small, unmanned aircraft immediately, enter hover mode, or employ a return-to-home sequence. The VLOS requirement does not prohibit actions such as scanning the airspace or briefly looking down at the small, unmanned aircraft CS.”

Any LRO flying their fixed-wing RC aircraft who has experienced the sections highlighted above have either had their ship depart the area, never to be seen again, or brought their prized possession home in a dustpan. Looking away has spelled aircraft death to many who have done it.

Remember, the RCPs (aka accidental aviators) have entered the aviation world by memorizing the answers to a 60-question test. Unlike MAPs, they have limited to no actual aviation experience and actually demonstrated flight competence isn’t verified. Even at AMA fields, flight proficiency must be demonstrated before you’re allowed to fly.

This results in the propagation of myths and misinformation that is hard to combat with the volume of 107 pilots (RCPs) believing those distortions as truth. Further, MAPs are taught to think and act differently after all our lives and livelihoods are dependent on understanding the rules since violating them could lead to losing our flying privileges. Care to discuss ADs, SBs, STCs, check rides, etc.? Imagine how you might feel if, on your next trip from MSP to PHX, the 767-captain announced on the intercom that he/she had just passed their written exam but had not been trained in or is certified to fly this aircraft. Are you still sitting in 17C?

How about 14 CFR § 91.7 Civil aircraft airworthiness

(a) No person may operate a civil aircraft unless it is in an airworthy condition.

(b) The pilot in command of a civil aircraft is responsible for determining whether that aircraft is in condition for safe flight. The pilot in command shall discontinue the flight when unairworthy mechanical, electrical, or structural conditions occur.

Without any documents, incident reporting or updates, how are pilots supposed to do comply with this mandate? What if a manufacturer discontinues drone models and related parts, what then?

I understand the FAA is short-staffed but placing inexperienced personnel into drone positions is not a viable option. It makes as much sense as putting an individual who has seen a photo of a 747 panel and sat in a sim for one hour to oversee the 747 commercial operations department. Actual stick time in all kinds of weather conditions creates the first-hand knowledge and experience necessary to develop – well experience and expertise.

Pick any topic under Areas of Misinformation and you will soon realize how confused and misguided the AAs are. And certain DSMs aren’t helping either when their marketing pitch such as, “expert pilot not required.” Really? Do you have any idea how newbies might perceive this marketing hype? Can you imagine Cessna, Beechcraft, Piper, Boeing advertising this?

The FAA needs to address these problems and more by hiring competent staff, removing confusing and/or ambiguous rules and propaganda, clarifying and enforcing them so that well-defined and realistic compliance can be met, pushing back, and correcting the AAs (and so-called experts) when they are wrong. Otherwise, your workload will grow exponentially, and you will need an enormous dustpan to pick up all the pieces when control is ultimately lost. Or as George Santayana stated. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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