Head off an unmanned aircraft disaster: Column
As pilots, we see these aircraft as potential dangers. Safe integration is our priority.
Whether found lying on the White House lawn or slicing into the flight path of an airliner on approach to a major airport, examples abound of the danger we court by misusing aircraft that are unmanned or remotely piloted. In these events, we have seen glimpses — but so far only glimpses — of the potential for disaster if we fail to treat them as what they are: aircraft in our national airspace.
While many use the term "drone," these vehicles are, in fact, aircraft. Some fly without a pilot on a pre-programmed route; others are flown remotely by pilots working near the launch site or thousands of miles away.
The Air Line Pilots Association, International, recognizes the popularity of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)
for recreation, the value of employing them in certain commercial applications, and the importance of our country's ability to compete in leading the development of new UAS technologies. The safety of air transportation, however, must be paramount over all of these goals.
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My organization is not against UAS aircraft; we are for their safe integration. The North American airspace is the most complex on the planet. It's also the safest, and we need to protect that extraordinary level of safety for all who depend on air transportation.
Remember the bird strike that caused the "Miracle on the Hudson"? Unmanned aircraft can be smaller or larger than birds, but they harbor added risk to aircraft in flight because they include batteries, motors and other hard, metal components.
For that reason, UAS must meet the same high level of safety and security standards as other airspace users. Regardless of whether they are used by hobbyist or for commercial purposes, rules are being developed for both small aircraft under 55 pounds and large ones that weigh more.
Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration has limited commercial small UAS operations to "line of sight," meaning that operators must be able to see the aircraft while flying it. Small UAS operators must keep the aircraft below 400 feet above ground level, and they can't be flown within 5 miles of an airport. Despite these guidelines, serious safety questions persist for airline pilots.
The most serious issue for small UAS operations is flying the device, intended or not, into civil airspace or a "lost link" scenario — a situation when the UAS is no longer receiving the signals that the operator transmits that could result in its entering the same airspace I fly in as commercial pilot. These situations are not acceptable.
Integrating larger UAS aircraft, which can be as large as my airliner, to be operated in our national airspace system is an even bigger concern. For that reason, ALPA maintains that large UAS must be designed, equipped, and certified to the same standards as airliners. The pilots that fly them must also be required to meet the same training and qualification standards that I am required to meet.
When I am flying in the cockpit, I need to be able to see any UAS operating in my airspace, intentionally or unintentionally, on my cockpit display of traffic. Air traffic controllers need to see them on their display as well, so they can manage traffic in the airspace. And the UAS itself must be equipped with safety systems including active collision-avoidance technology.
Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems were developed as a result of a number of midair collisions many years ago. UAS aircraft must be equipped with this technology if they are intended to be operated in our airspace or have the potential to inadvertently find their way into our airspace. Why subject our passengers and cargo to an avoidable risk?
ALPA continues to work with the FAA and other industry stakeholders to develop real-world solutions and standards for safe UAS operations. While the regulations needed to address these challenges will be complex, they need to be developed thoroughly and correctly.
Airline pilots often say that you don't fly an airplane with your hands, you fly it with your head. We can't cross our fingers and hope that we will continue to avert the potential threat posed by the misuse of UAS. Our nation needs to make wise decisions based on safety as we integrate UAS into the national airspace.
Capt. Tim Canoll is the president of the Air Line Pilots Association, International, which represents more than 51,000 professional airline pilots.
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