A close encounter that a small airliner had with a drone earlier this year has cast a spotlight on the importance of the state’s role in opening the nation’s airspace to unmanned aerial vehicles.
It wasn’t until May that the public learned of a close call a US Airways regional jet had with a drone over the Florida panhandle in March. According to published accounts, the pilot of US Airways Flight 4650 was landing at Tallahassee Regional Airport when his twin-engine CRJ-200 regional jet nearly collided with an unmanned aircraft he described as “a camouflaged F-4 fixed-wing aircraft that was quite small.”
The incident occurred at 2,300 feet, well above the altitude most drones and hobbyist aircraft are flown.
Speaking at a conference in California in May, Jim Williams, head of the Federal Aviation Administration’s unmanned-aircraft office, said the pilot “said that he thought the (drone) was so close to his jet that he was sure that he had collided with it,” The Wall Street Journal reported.
Drones pose the same danger as a flock of birds if ingested into a jet engine.
Nevada is one of six states the FAA selected late last year to conduct tests that ultimately would lead to the integration of unmanned aerial vehicles into the public airspace late next year. Once the test program is running, the Nevada Institute of Autonomous Systems will provide data to the FAA and help companies bring commercial unmanned systems to market.
Within five years, the FAA expects there to be 7,500 unmanned vehicles in the skies and tens of thousands by 2025.
The merging of unmanned aircraft into commercial airspace will be one topic addressed at the Nevada Unmanned Systems Business Expo this week at the Las Vegas Convention Center. The two-day event that opens Thursday is the first of its kind in the state.
Executives of commercial airlines, the companies that would be the most directly affected by airspace integration, and aviation experts have mixed feelings about the arrival of drones to their domain.
“Anything that presents an aviation safety issue outweighs everything else,” said Michael Boyd, president and CEO of Boyd Group International, who brought his annual aviation forecast summit to Las Vegas last month. “That’s all there is to it.”
A CASE FOR GROUND RULES
Boyd said it’s important for the FAA to establish some ground rules even before testing occurs. The agency that regulates the nation’s airspace issued a national policy notice in July that defines the difference between commercial drones and hobbyist aircraft and also bans unmanned flights within 5 miles of airports.
The FAA policy essentially says that any time an unmanned aircraft becomes a means to generate revenue it’s a commercial drone. Flights that don’t make money and are for recreational purposes are hobbyist aircraft.
But Boyd said the rules are being challenged in court.
“The first thing is whether or not the FAA has the authority to do these things,” Boyd said. “They’ve issued ‘rules,’ but they’ve been knocked out in court because they don’t have the authority.”
Boyd said he supports drone technology but that it’s arrived faster than the government can administer it.
“There’s nothing wrong with drones, but you don’t want them at LaGuardia Airport. And you don’t want some amateur flying them, and there may be a security issue with drones,” he said. “You don’t want someone with a drone flying overhead and dropping something. All of those things have to be dealt with very soon.”
As the industry blossoms, the problem will worsen.
“It’s an issue, but it’s not a big thing right now,” Boyd said. “It’s not a clear and present danger. It’s a long-term danger, and that’s what they have to deal with.”
Some airline executives who attended Boyd’s conference expect the airspace integration issues to be resolved quickly. Some expressed modest concern about current policies. But none of them think the mixing of drones with commercial aircraft will scare passengers away.
“As a consumer, I think the idea is just fascinating, that I could order something and two hours later, it shows up with a little robot,” said Ben Baldanza, president and CEO of Florida-based Spirit Airlines. “It’s so cool.”
‘LIKE THE DRIVERLESS CAR’
Baldanza says the FAA still has a lot of work to do.
“Clearly, I think the FAA and the airspace world has to do a lot of vetting,” he said. “To some extent, I think of it almost like the driverless car. The technology is there today to have driverless cars, but how long is it going to take before that becomes a practical reality that you’ll see those cars on the road? I think it’s probably the same thing with drones. I think there’s a lot of testing of the technology to figure out how to make that work.”
Because commercial airliners fly much higher than drones, he doesn’t expect any midair conflicts.
“If they (drones) fly low, I don’t think there’s a big issue,” he said. “You probably have a bigger problem with kids with BB guns.”
And, he doesn’t expect the integration of drones to the public airspace to frighten prospective passengers.
“There are so many things that could scare people about flying that are a lot worse than maybe seeing a little drone out there,” he said. “The reality is that people internalize all that and they look at the cost of flying versus driving and taking the trip they want.
“I think there’s a general trust in consumers that the airplane’s probably not going to fly if there’s a real risk it’s going to be hit by a drone and people will figure that out,” he added.
“I think that’s what most people think. I think you’ll see some fear around the edges just because it’s new, but I don’t think it’s going to affect commercial flying at all.”
Andrew Levy, president and chief operating officer of Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air, said the arrival of drones to the airspace emphasizes the need to upgrade the nation’s air-traffic control system.
“I’m not sure that the technology for the airspace is there,” Levy said. “There has to be all these investments made to the airspace as far as managing aircraft, things that are decades in the making, and I’m not sure how much progress has really been made because it’s caught up in Washington politics.”
But he’s confident in the ability of airline pilots to manage any problems that could be encountered.
“Those folks up in the front make their money when things go wrong,” he said.
ANTICIPATING THE WAVE OF THE FUTURE
JetBlue Airways President and CEO Dave Barger believes autonomous systems at all levels of transportation are the wave of the future and that regulators better be ready for it.
“I think it’s a big deal,” Barger said. “There’s no doubt the commercial application is there today, so the systems better be there to accommodate it. With the reliability of these systems and the price point, we better be ready for them.”
Barger referred to smart cars and trains and said one of his company’s board members believes that someday, air freight may be transported on drone aircraft.
“Look at what’s happening with automobiles, with smart cars,” he said. “And look at the reliability of fully autonomous trains. It’s better than the ones run by humans. You see these trains around the world where they don’t have an engineer. They’re fully automated.
Not only is there less cost, but greater reliability.
“A member of my board thinks we’ll see freighters being flown with autonomous systems within 20 years.”
Barger said the authorization of an upgraded air-traffic control system is key to safety and good planning.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com