As more Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or drones begin to fly in emergency service roles it is probably a good idea to have a discussion about the need for incident radio communications.
Let’s put aside the issues surrounding UAS airspace conflict for a moment. If the public safety UAS pilot is flying at a newsworthy incident they will also have to contend with news helicopters flying just above them.
While I fly a Matrice 210 for the Wake Forest Fire Department and carry sophisticated radio communications capabilities on large reaching radio networks, there exists no standard protocol for me to communicate with other UAS and additional aircraft to organize conflict resolution.
As an aircraft pilot there are regular procedures when aircraft are in the traffic pattern of a non-controlled airport, like your local little airport. Pilots will radio their position to alert other aircraft in or near the traffic pattern to help avoid accidents. On more than one occasion I’ve had to take evasive action as an aircraft entered the airport traffic pattern without talking.
Aircraft entering controlled airspace at larger airports must absolutely communicate with Air Traffic Control. Radio communications may not fully eliminate airspace conflicts but it is certainly a good thing to engage in to easily reduce needless risks.
Public safety drones and UAS aircraft are likely going to be operating in a much tighter airspace over an incident. As it stands now there are no rules of the sky to determine appropriate altitude to maintain separation of UAS and there is absolutely no standard to allow UAS pilots to quickly communicate.
This seems like a problem with an easy resolution by the FAA. Since the FAA certifies aircraft pilots and UAS pilots, using the same type of radio aircraft pilots use could fall into a process already dictated by the FAA and FCC.
The most likely device would be a handheld VHF transceiver, like this one.
Not only does the handheld radio allow users to talk on aviation frequencies between each other, but also an easy way to receive NOAA weather radio to monitor weather and flying conditions.
When it comes to which frequency to use, that is a bigger question. One consideration would be to utilize a set frequency for all UAS operations or to use something like the nearest airport common airport traffic frequency (CTAF) minus one. At the airport below the CTAF frequency is 123.0 and UAS pilots could use 122.0.
Or the FAA could publish a grid map that covered the United States and assign UAS communication VHF frequencies for UAS pilots to use.
The bottom line is we need to start talking and thinking ahead now on how all UAS pilots should coordinate at an incident scene before UAS collisions become a problem.
If you’d like to discuss this further and help move a solution forward, contact me using the form below.