On 22 March 2014, US Airways Flight 4650 from Charlotte, North Carolina was on approach to Tallahassee Regional Airport in Florida when the passenger jet's pilot spotted a "small remotely piloted aircraft" passing so perilously close that "he was sure he had collided with it", according to the manager of the US Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office Jim Williams.
This near-miss is one of more than 190 incidents involving uncomfortably close proximity between manned and unmanned aircraft, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) as they are officially termed by the US Department of Defense, recorded by the FAA in the nine months leading up to December 2014. These incidents ranged from reports of drones spotted in proximity to manned aircraft to narrowly avoided mid-air collisions like the near-miss in March.
Safety fears as UAS market heats up
The spiking frequency of such events serves as a red flag for an emerging safety issue facing the 21st century aviation industry and its regulators. More than two decades of military innovation has dramatically refined UAS technology, to the extent that small but sophisticated remote-controlled systems have become increasingly affordable for hobbyists on home turf, while the prospect of more widespread drone use for commercial purposes is starting to look closer to science than science-fiction. Mainstream delivery companies like Amazon, DHL and even Domino's Pizza are trialling drone operations, not to mention the countless industrial uses for small UAS, some of which are being exploited already.
It's an exciting time for a budding civil and commercial drone industry, which is impatient to see a solid UAS regulatory framework set out for the US so that widespread drone integration can begin. But it's also an important moment for policymakers to place sensible limits on UAS usage and ensure public safety. By 2018, the FAA expects some 7,500 small unmanned aircraft to be operating in US airspace, and as the near-miss at Tallahassee demonstrated, an excessively laissez-faire regulatory stance could have catastrophic consequences.
"The genie is out of the bottle because people are already flying without understanding [the risk]," Marko Peljhan of drone manufacturer C-Astral Aerospace told the Wall Street Journal in May 2014. "It's a disaster waiting to happen."
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Strong words from Peljhan, perhaps, but the sentiment is echoed by Mark Dombroff, aviation attorney and partner at US law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge (MLA). Dombroff represented the FAA among other public agencies while working within the Department of Justice earlier in his career; in private practice he now co-chairs MLA's UAS Practice Group. His experience working on air crash investigations has informed his view of the stakes involved in the FAA's integration of UAS into civilian airspace.
"I don't think this is an area where the FAA should race to the finish line," he says. Referring to US Airways Flight 1549, which had to ditch in New York's Hudson River in 2009 after striking geese shortly after take-off - the aftermath of which Dombroff was involved in - he adds: "If geese can take down an Airbus - and thank God the airplane made this miracle landing on the Hudson river - but if geese can take down an Airbus aircraft, ingesting a 25lb or 35lb piece of aluminum with a camera hanging off the bottom of it, I'm reasonably certain it could take down an aircraft. I keep going back to the consequences - I've handled too many mid-air collisions, I've represented too many airlines in the aftermath, and to do this in anything other than a methodical fashion is irresponsible."
UAS regulation: look before you leap
Perhaps surprisingly, given his advocacy of a methodical and safety-conscious approach to setting out UAS regulations, Dombroff believes his opinion might be in the minority among America's UAS community. There has been significant criticism of the FAA's rather sluggish pace when it comes to UAS regulation, especially from drone makers that are waiting for a regulatory green light to kick off the UAS revolution. While countries like New Zealand, Australia, France and Canada are forging ahead with regulations for commercial drone operation, the US is lagging behind, with only recreational use of drones (below 400ft and within line-of-sight) currently permitted outside of public agencies like police forces and a tiny number of Section 333 exceptions for commercial and industrial operators.
US Congress has given the FAA until September 2015 to set the guidelines for safe UAS integration into domestic airspace, but the deadline will be virtually impossible to meet at this point. The White House's Office of Management and Budget has not yet authorised the agency to publish its notice of proposed rulemaking for small UAS regulation, after which its proposed rules will have to go through a cost-benefit analysis before a potentially extensive public comment phase is undertaken.
"We're looking at the middle to end of 2016, easily," predicts Dombroff. For innovative UAS entrepreneurs who are unused to the heavily-regulated world of aviation, the wait might seem interminable, but according to Dombroff, the pace of legislation in other countries will not - and should not - affect the speed with which the FAA carries out its task.
"The airspace structure in the US is, I think, more complex than the airspace structure in most other countries in the world," he says. "Compare the US to Australia or England; the number of major airports that you're talking about and the volume of air traffic in various kinds of airspace is much larger here. So I think what you've got is a more complex task of integrating these UAS into that airspace, so to take an experience that Canada has and somehow say, 'We'll simply transport that experience down to the United States and everything will be fine,' I think is quite frankly naïve."
Going commercial: regulating the drones of the future
Of course, the FAA's current objective to create a basic framework for domestic UAS deployment is really only the first step in an ongoing journey to maintain a strong and safe air traffic control (ATC) environment as the number of operating drones continues to rise. Dombroff, for one, is in little doubt of the revolution that's in store in the coming decades.
"Will we ever reach that world where we're sitting in our office buildings and we look outside to see the purple FedEx drone zip by, followed by the brown UPS drone? I don't think we're going to see it anytime soon, but are we ultimately going to see it? The answer is yes, I believe we ultimately will see it because we have the technology."
The question, then, is how can the US ATC environment evolve over time to account for the drones that could become such a mainstay of tomorrow's world? At this point, the options are open to discussion. Dombroff notes that UAS integration is getting a major push in the US's Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) as it continues to roll out over the next decade, especially with the implementation of ADS-B for real-time air traffic awareness for both controllers and pilots. Although drone use is currently prohibited within five miles of an airport, more granular awareness might even lead to their deployment at airports themselves.
"I actually think drones have uses at airports," Dombroff says. "Whether it's for runway inspection, wildlife control, security operations or infrastructure inspection, I think there's a universe of uses for UAS by airport operators, and frankly those uses could be implemented right now, because what better place is there to control the separation between aircraft and UAS than at the airport itself? So I think we're going to see a narrowing of separation requirements ultimately as the technology improves. The whole concept of NextGen is to allow more aircraft to operate in less airspace."
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Other developments in the field include a collaborative project between NASA and drone start-up Airware to develop drone-specific ATC prototypes, potentially allowing larger-scale deployment of commercial drones while dealing with the safety issues that will inevitably crop up as the skies become more densely populated.
"You will have competing interests trying to use the same space," Airware's head of business development and regulatory affairs Jesse Kallman told the MIT Technology Review in October. "Imagine Amazon trying to deliver packages in an area [where] an energy company is trying to survey power lines." The project's first internet-based system will involve drone operators filing digital flight plans to a central system that will account for other drone flights and physical obstacles before granting approval. Further refinements might include automatic emergency protocols and the ability to send out mass commands if conditions change.
Ultimately, the sheer economic pull of commercial drones will provide an enticing incentive to solve the technical and regulatory challenges involved in widespread deployment, however long it takes. "Everything I've read about this subject seems to project the same numbers, namely we're looking at an $80-90bn industry over the next ten years," says Dombroff. "If that's accurate, that economic engine is so large that it's going to drive through all of the problems, all of the issues. Solutions will be reached, and the only issue becomes not if it will happen but when it will happen."
Nevertheless, given that the FAA currently has issues regulating overenthusiastic hobbyists, let alone a vast fleet of commercial drones, a methodical approach to regulation seems like the only sensible course, despite grousing from the industry over slow progress. And if, as Dombroff's fellow co-chair of MLA's UAS Practice Group Lisa Ellman argued in a recent TEDx presentation, innovators can work together with policymakers rather than tutting and staring at their watches, the process is likely to be faster and more successful.