Navigating Quickly Crowding Skies

By Doug Lenz, PE, ENV SP, and Dae Suh, MBA

Say the word aircraft, and you may picture an airplane, or a helicopter, with a person in the cockpit. But the airline industry is rapidly seeing a new reality: a future in which aircraft will be unmanned. And discussions taking place now will be expected to lay the groundwork for innovations that could revolutionize the aviation industry, even as they raise complex questions regarding privacy, airspace restrictions and safety.

The growth of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) is undeniable. The FAA expects total hobbyist and commercial UAS sales to hit 7 million in 2020, up from 2.7 million today. 

In the future, unmanned aircraft will continue to save lives on the battlefield and during natural disasters. Additionally, all military aircraft of war could be drones. UAS will also help search-and-rescue teams find lost hikers and allow police forces that cannot afford manned helicopters to obtain vital, potentially lifesaving overhead imagery during hostage standoffs. When used safely and in a manner respecting privacy, domestic UAS can become important tools for private citizens, firefighters, scientists, news reporters, filmmakers and others to more effectively observe the world around them. More broadly, the 21st century will, in many ways, be the century of unmanned aircraft. A strong unmanned aircraft industry will be an essential ingredient in economic competitiveness. 

Safety Concerns Arise

But civilian drones increasingly threaten the safety of commercial aviation, as the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has warned. The proliferation of UAS is a major concern for the airline industry, as airspace safety considerations must be addressed to enable manned and unmanned aircraft to safely share airspace. Over the past year, there have been many encounters with a UAS flying too close to a plane at a major airport.

"The issue is real," said Tony Tyler, CEO of IATA, during this year’s Singapore Airshow Aviation Leadership Summit. "We have plenty of pilot reports of drones where they were not expected — particularly at low altitudes around airports. … There is no denying that there is a real and growing threat to the safety of civilian aircraft."

Drones flying at low altitudes near airports, potentially threatening planes that are taking off or landing, are of primary concerns to IATA and airlines. While there is a significant amount of ongoing research and regulatory activity aimed at addressing the integration of UAS into shared airspace, there is much work that still remains to be done. Regulators undoubtedly will proceed extremely cautiously.

Restricted Airspace

Airports across the country are seeing record passenger counts. While infrastructure such as terminals and runways can be expanded or enhanced, there’s one piece of airport real estate that can’t be stretched: airspace. As airspace becomes increasingly crowded with additional planes, and with the upsurge in UAS, aerospace officials at NASA say the current Air Traffic Control System will not be equipped to handle the predicted volume or variety of aircraft expected in 2035 and beyond. 

To overcome this challenge and preserve safe access for all commuters, the FAA has released an airspace system that allows UAS to safely and efficiently navigate dense and diverse future airspace. The ruling guides how businesses can use UAS for inspecting power lines, filming movie scenes and accomplishing so much more. 

Looking Ahead

The FAA continues to promote awareness and safety within the UAS market. The FAA is partnering with several industry associations for a “Know Before You Fly” educational campaign. The FAA also has developed an app — B4UFLY — as part of the awareness and safety initiative, providing UAS operators with pertinent airspace requirements and restrictions. The overall demand for commercial UAS will be expected to soar once regulations more easily enable Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS) operations and operations of multiple UAS by a single pilot. 

From the FAA granting more than 1,000 exemptions to businesses seeking to use drones, to the requirement of registration recently taking effect, UAS are here — and likely here to stay. Throughout the world, millions of “pilots” are taking off without ever leaving the ground. And the industry will continue growing.

As the UAS industry prepares for this new airspace system to take effect, concurrent industry initiatives will help raise public awareness about what it means to operate UAS safely in a changing and evolving airspace environment. The efforts also will continue to educate and provide awareness for the UAS community while fostering a culture of safety and accountability. 

There is much work that still remains to be done to keep the skies safe as the UAS market continues to grow at a rapid rate, while proceeding cautiously, with safety as the number one priority. 

Rules of Engagement

  • Recreational UAS operators must give notice for flights within 5 miles of an airport.
  • Recreational UAS operators are prohibited in Class B airspace without specific air traffic permission and coordination.
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Doug Lenz Department Manager 816-822-3926
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