The FAA executive in charge of integrating unmanned aerial systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System (NAS) says that if and when a small UAS (sUAS) and a manned aircraft collide, the manned aircraft isn’t likely to suffer serious damage. Jim Williams was speaking to a nervous audience of helicopter operators at HAI Heli-Expo in Orlando last week and said that while there’s never been a reported contact between an sUAS and a civilian aircraft, the military has some experience in that regard. In all cases the aircraft was virtually unscathed while the UAS was “smashed to pieces.” He said aircraft are much more robust than the lightly built UASs, which inevitably come up on the short end of a chance encounter. Nevertheless, he pledged that the FAA has safety at the forefront of its UAS integration plan without displacing existing traffic. “We can’t integrate unmanned systems at the expense of manned systems,” he told a skeptical crowd of more than 200 at the Orange County Convention Center. Helicopter operators have a particular interest in the UAS movement since they routinely fly in the same airspace (below 500 feet) as that being proposed for sUAS operations. “The 500-foot airspace is a place we hold dear,” said HAI moderator David York.
Williams encouraged attendees to make their feelings known by commenting on the recent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that shows the path the FAA intends to take on the commercial use of sUAS. It generally limits unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds to altitudes lower than 500 feet, day VFR and within line of sight of the operator. He reiterated the safety priority but he also noted the FAA has been directed by Congress to get rules in place, so he said the agency’s goal is the “safe, efficient, timely integration” of UAS. He also noted that the current rule, which is likely to draw tens of thousands of comments, is only the first step toward full integration of all sizes of unmanned aircraft. For instance, he said he hopes to have standards for “sense and avoid” systems that would allow beyond-line-of-sight operations established by 2017. Williams also said the agency didn’t back away from a reported proposal to require a private pilot certificate for UAS operators because it never actually considered such a move. “Don’t believe everything you read,” he said, adding that requiring a PPL was “never the intent” and that the FAA always planned a separate certificate for UAS operators. The NPRM calls for operators to pass an airspace and aviation regulation knowledge test every two years to keep their certificate. HAI’s York also reiterated his organization’s request that members get involved by commenting on the rule. “This is a very important NPRM.”