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Adding Drones to our Busy Skies

Commonly known as “drones”, unmanned aerial vehicles have been around for a while and have proven to be very useful in military operations. Starting with the Vietnam War, drones have been proliferating at an astonishing rate.

Commonly known as “drones”, unmanned aerial vehicles or unmanned aerial systems have been around for a while and have proven to be very useful in military operations. Starting with the Vietnam War, drones have been proliferating at an astonishing rate. Fast forward to today, drones are being used more and more by police departments, border partrol and other private agencies. The purposes are noble, but there is one problem. The flights are about to come to an airspace near you, and can potentially bring them into conflict with other manned aircraft.
There are generally two types of drones: those that are remotely controlled from as much as thousands of miles away, and those that fly autonomously based on pre-programmed flight plans using more complex dynamic automation systems.
In the USA, the FAA restricts drone use primarily to segregated blocks of military airspace, border patrols and about 300 public agencies and their private partners. Those public agencies are mainly restricted to flying small unmanned aircraft at low altitudes away from airports and urban centers.
Following the US Congress’ recent passage of a bill aimed at prodding the nation’s aviation system into a new high-tech era, piloted planes are about to share the skies with unmanned drones. The bill requires the FAA to open US skies to drone flights in under four years.
September 30, 2015 is the date set for which unmanned drones will be permitted to fly in the same airspace as airliners, cargo planes, business jets and private aircraft; but the FAA has only nine months to submit a plan on how to safely provide drones with that expanded access.
Planning for the integration will be quite a feat, since the US accounts for about 35 percent of global commercial air traffic, coupled with the fact that they probably have the world’s most complicated airspace.
On the FAA’s part, there is genuine reluctance open up access to civil airspace because of concerns that the sense and avoid capabilities of these unmanned aircraft were not yet mature enough to operate safely in shared airspace.
I share the same concern and have a few questions of my own. How do air traffic controllers deal with the preprogrammed drones? What happens when weather conditions deteriorate? Are some of these drones large enough to give you a radar return?
Such a small window of time to piece together a radical new system will be something short of a miracle. Whatever the FAA comes up with, one thing is certain: air traffic controllers will have their jobs cut out for them.

Provisions in the FAA bill include:

  • Setting a 30 Sept., 2015 deadline for full integration of Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) into the national airspace
  • Requiring a comprehensive integration plan within nine months
  • Requiring the FAA to create a five-year UAS roadmap (which should be updated annually)
  • Requiring small UAS (under 55 pounds) to be allowed to fly within 27 months
  • Requiring six UAS test sites within six months (similar to the language in the already-passed defense bill)
  • Requiring small UAS (under 55 pounds) be allowed to fly in the U.S. Arctic, 24 hours a day, beyond line-of-sight, at an altitude of at least 2,000 feet, within one year
  • Requiring expedited access for public users, such as law enforcement, firefighters, emergency responders
  • Allowing first responders to fly very small UAS (4.4 pounds or less) within 90 days if they meet certain requirements
  • Requiring the FAA to study UAS human factors and causes of accidents

And one more thing, who’s ready for the potential privacy-busting that can ensue once these drones start to buzz around above your yard? Give me your thoughts.

2 Responses


Crowded skies, like we really need that.


That I can assure you will be a challenge for air traffic controllers.

About Wayne Farley

I am Wayne, a career air traffic controller. Engage me while I share my thoughts, experience, and news from around the aviation world. A post titled “13 Characteristics of an Air Traffic Controller” written in 2010 went viral and established me as the unofficial ambassador of ATC.

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