Safer UAV operations in controlled airspace

Safer UAV operations in controlled airspace

UAV operations within the United States are growing at a rate fairly accurately forecasted by the FAA. Seven million UAVs are expected to be in circulation by 2020, according to estimates by the FAA. In 2016 alone over 110,000 UAVs were sold for commercial use, and in 2017 that number is expected to grow close to 180,000. Goldman Sachs is also predicting that military and civilian UAV acquisitions will approach the $100bn mark between 2016 and 2020. These numbers are showing that we cannot slow down rapid advancement of UAV technologies and the readily available commercial, military, and civilian applications for the UAVs themselves.

safer drone operation in airspace

KIAG airspace map

With rapidly increasing congestion of airspace within the United States, an emphasis must be placed on the responsibility of commercial and hobbyist UAV/UAS operators. UAV technology, or more importantly the interface and linkages from pilot to UAV, are becoming mature. Reliability, distance, and accuracy are all becoming topics of yesterday, with the focus and trend of conversation moving more toward compliance with regulation.

Commercial UAV operators are becoming more familiar with the processes of compliance required by FAA regulations. This familiarity is creating a safer flying environment for manned aircraft, and as the number of UAVs in the sky increases, the nature of unmanned flight will change with it.

Becoming an Asset to the FAA

Commercial and corporate UAV operators can become an asset to air traffic control and the safety of the National Airspace System. Businesses are likely to disseminate proper procedures, and also keep an eye on those who may not be following those rules and regulations. As a responsible partner with air traffic control, just like manned aircraft, UAVs can provide a wealth of benefits to aviation. The systems aboard many larger commercial UAVs are changing enough to keep up with even the newest of regulations, with a large portion of UAV operators looking to add equipment that complies with mandates, like ADS-B Out capabilities.

Niagara Falls International Airport from overheadAlthough the number of FAA regulations concerning UAV/UAS operation has dwindled greatly over the past two years, the nature of these rules may be daunting to newcomers to aviation. If you were to ask a commercial photographer what Class “D” airspace was two years ago, the response probably would have been a blank stare. If you were to ask that same photographer that question today, chances are much higher they would know what you were asking them.

Aviation as an industry is complicated, and the number of rules that are present (from the 7110.65 to the AIM and everything else that goes along with them) are there to protect the people flying and those below them. Mixing in a historically civilian hobby would normally spell disaster; however, through diligent planning and careful execution, the FAA has been able to keep incidents concerning UAVs to a minimum.

Corporate responsibility is going to play a big role in the evolution of UAV/UAS acceptance into the United States’ airspace. Business organizations that choose to follow the rules, pay attention, and gain a thorough understanding of how they mix with other traffic will help the FAA move forward with well thought out safety initiatives. This responsibility will be mandatory as services like 3D mapping, UAV-based survey, lidar, and gas detection become commonplace in the commercial sector.


Preparing a UAV for survey work

Calspan employees complete pre-flight checklists to ensure safe operation

Creating A Good Partnership

Calspan’s commercial UAV operation is a good example of a successful partnership between a corporation, air traffic control, local airport tenants, and the FAA. Located at the Niagara Falls International Airport (KIAG), Calspan is a flight research and testing services provider with long experience testing UAV systems using manned surrogates. Calspan needed a safe area in which to develop a fixed-wing sUAS capability for aerial mapping, surveying, and utility infrastructure inspection. The Niagara Falls airport was the perfect place – a large, flat, unobstructed, mostly grassy area with tower control of aircraft traffic in Class D airspace.

One of the most important and difficult requirements of Part 107 sUAS operation is avoiding other aircraft. In uncontrolled airspace it is impossible to predict the movements of aircraft because they are, naturally, uncontrolled. One could argue that the safest place to operate a UAV is in controlled airspace because aircraft movements are known and it is easier for the UAV to avoid them. This assumes, of course, that the UAV remote pilot is in communication with ATC and knows the position and intentions of all traffic.

With these ideas in mind, Calspan partnered with KIAG tower controllers and the local airport authority to develop a set of operating procedures to safely operate a sUAS in the Class D airspace, with the goal of obtaining a certificate of authorization (COA) from the FAA. Operations were to be conducted in accordance with FAR Part 107, including remaining below 400 feet AGL and in visual sight at all times.

The Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, home to the 914th Air Refueling Wing’s KC-135 tankers, also participated in the development of the sUAS procedures, requiring prior notification of Calspan’s operations and putting in place procedures for notifying USAF police and other military units on the base. Additionally there is a UAS restricted area around the base property over which a UAS may not fly.

The fundamental ground rule for developing the sUAS operating procedures was that the sUAS would not interfere with full-scale aircraft traffic. Holding areas were designated at the edges of the airfield, well clear of the runways, in which the sUAS could loiter when aircraft traffic was arriving or departing.


Loading UAV into catapault

A catapult launch system for Calspan’s UAV


Another fundamental requirement was that the sUAS remote pilot be in radio contact with the tower at all times. In this way the sUAS crew is aware of all arriving and departing traffic and can respond immediately to instructions from the tower

Calspan’s sUAS is catapult launched and parachute-recovered. Launch and recovery areas were designated on the field well clear of the runway safety areas.

UAV Responsibility

A key concept in the sUAS operational procedures is that the tower may not provide traffic separation services to the sUAS. The sUAS crew must request approval to launch or recover the sUAS, but this does not constitute an ATC clearance. The sUAS crew is still responsible for avoiding all airborne traffic. In practice the tower does not grant such approval until the Class D airspace is clear of traffic or all aircraft are on the ground.

The final step in developing the procedures was to request approval from the FAA. Calspan requested a COA for operations in the KIAG Class D airspace within 1.2 nautical miles of the airport reference point. The FAA review process resulted in several improvements to the procedures, notably the addition of the requirement to place the lost link flight plan so that it would not cross active runways. In the end, the sUAS operating procedures were comprised in a Letter of Agreement (LOA) between Calspan, air traffic control, the Air Force Reserve, and the airport authority. The LOA became part of the COA granted by the FAA.

As of this writing, Calspan has safely conducted 11 flights for approximately 10 hours of flight time in the KIAG Class D airspace. The procedures for avoiding other aircraft traffic have worked well, and both the sUAS crew and tower controllers maintain total situational awareness. The sUAS operations have not affected aircraft traffic in any way, except for a few interested questions from pilots when they are informed, “there is a UAV operating south of runway 28L, at 400 feet or below!”

Calspan’s sUAS operations in the Class D airspace have demonstrated that, with proper procedures and communications, unmanned and manned aircraft can fly together safely in the same airspace.

Click here to learn more about Calspan’s UAV survey, 3d mapping, and remote detection capabilities

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