Getting US Skies Ready for UAVs

The Pentagon and FAA continue to work the issue of integrating unmanned flight operations into US airspace, said Doug Davis, the manager of FAA’s unmanned aircraft program office. This topic is taking on greater importance as more Air Guard and Reserve units assume UAV missions, he said Jan. 9 during a presentation at a Marcus Evans defense conference in Washington, D.C. While significant progress has been made, there remains much to resolve, he said. “We must have no adverse impact to the thousands of aircraft already operating in our system,” Davis explained, noting that FAA is in the midst of the safest period for civil aviation in the organization’s history and wants to maintain the high levels of safety. DOD and FAA are engaged in a number of activities to iron out consistent “link loss” procedures, flight termination systems, and integration with manned aircraft in the current system, he said. They are also establishing an integrated UAV laboratory under FAA’s current R&D shop to explore scenarios on data transmission, frequency spectrum issues, and command and control, Davis said. Another challenge is that there are currently no specific certification criteria for the “system level” of UAVs, which includes the airframe, ground control element, and data link. As a result, all parts of a given system have to be certificated in order to operate in domestic airspace. In the case of data links, Davis pointed out that procedures for UAVs vary when a link is lost. Some climb to 4,000 feet to re-establish contact; some will make hard turns or loops. “In a battlefield, that’s OK. But in the middle of Cleveland, that’s not a good idea,” he said.