Work is progressing apace on both sides of the Atlantic to open up of airspace for UAV operations, creating a new commercial market for the first time
Something of a revolution has being sweeping the air traffic management community over the past 12 months as it tries to catch up rapidly with widespread demand to allow unmanned aircraft to operate routinely in national and international airspace.
The common aim on both sides of the Atlantic is for a global regulatory environment to ensure simultaneous opening up of airspace. Coupled to this is a recognition that key enabling regulations for UAV airworthiness certification, sense-and-avoid technologies, communication systems, operator training and operating procedures must all be harmonised as closely as possible to allow seamless unmanned aircraft operations.
The transatlantic push is aiming for near simultaneous implementation of reforms in the USA and Europe, a move that would at long last allow widespread introduction of UAVs into commercial roles. Potentially, that would pave the way for a new and lucrative market for the aerospace industry.
That potential was enough for the US Department of Commerce to call an invitation-only meeting of senior officials from the international aerospace, defence and airspace regulatory communities at the Paris air show in June. The only agenda item was to discuss what other co-operative steps could be taken to hasten airspace access arrangements as part of the shaping of the global UAV market.
Canada may also become part of the harmonisation initiative, with participation options to be discussed at a major conference organised by the UVS Canada industry association at Banff, Alberta, in November.
The emerging revolution arises from parallel pushes for the opening up of airspace to UAV operations in the USA and Europe that date back almost a decade, but are only now reaching maturity. A significant driver in the USA has been the formation of the industry-led UAV National Industry Team (Unite) Access 5 initiative to open up the country’s airspace to medium- and high-altitude UAV operations.
Equally important has been the role of a small group of regulators on either side of the Atlantic, including Nick Sabatini, US Federal Aviation Administration associate administrator for aviation safety; Yves Morier, head of the European Aviation Safety Agency’s product safety unit rulemaking directorate; and Alex Hendriks, head of the aerospace, flow management and navigation division at Eurocontrol.
In early June, these three took the stage at the annual UVS International conference in Paris to announce plans for transatlantic harmonisation of UAV policy efforts, beginning with the near-parallel development and issuing of draft UAV airworthiness regulations by EASA and the FAA (Flight International, 14-20 June).
That announcement followed high-level meetings between EASA and the FAA in June in Cologne, Germany, held during the annual Europe-US International Aviation Safety Conference. That event saw Morier and Tony Fazio, head of the FAA’s office of rulemaking, jointly chair a workshop on UAV air traffic integration.
The two said the looming impact of UAVs on airspace usage had a close parallel with the environment faced by regulators in 1920, when military aviation was well established, commercial airline services were just emerging, and long-range scheduled flight services were being pioneered. The most likely scenario was for UAVs to develop as part of the commercial aviation world, they suggested, including the often cited “air work” type of utility missions and a role in the air freight sector.
UAVs could become a normal part of airspace use and airport activity as soon as 2008, they said, depending on the outcome of the Access 5 initiative to normalise UAV flight operations above flight level 180 (18,000ft/5,500m), and a global high-altitude endurance UAV market could exist after 2010. The European Commission’s own research, they noted, pointed to transport UAV technology reaching a medium level of maturity by 2020.
Morier says the Cologne workshop gave rise to “very lively debate”, but reached the critical conclusion that “actions should be taken to ensure international co-operation between authorities, international organisations, industry, research institutes and academia, civil and military”. He adds: “It was probably the major realisation we made in the international conference. We have probably an appropriate timescale. We are at the right juncture to do it right now.”
Multiple initiatives are taking place in Europe, says Morier, but with EASA and Eurocontrol playing key co-ordinating roles to draw them together into a common framework. The forward EASA rulemaking programme aims to have a formal policy for UAV type certification in place by mid-2006, preceded by the issuing of an interim advanced notice of proposed amendment (A-NPA) by December.
Pressure is mounting on European regulators, says Morier, with EASA expected to receive at least one request for experimental certification “quite soon”. European policy development must be based on a total systems approach to UAV air safety, he says, and must proceed in step not only with FAA activities but also with policies adopted or being planned by various other countries, such as Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Regulations Part 101. “There are multiple initiatives worldwide. Trying to put things too much in concrete [just for Europe] could pose problems and we need to reflect on what others are doing and try to take that into account.”
Co-operation between the FAA, EASA and Eurocontrol will provide a common core for international harmonisation, not just transatlantic arrangements, says Morier. In that context, the A-NPA is intended as a vehicle to “put thoughts on the table” to foster more in-depth dialogue with other agencies, he adds.
Morier describes the A-NPA as a “sort of step before we actually propose a noticeof proposed amendment – so before we start regulating in earnest – which will propose a generic policy for a type certification basis for UAVs”.
The A-NPA concepts will be directly based on the UAV certification concepts released in mid-2004 by Eurocontrol and EASA’s predecessor, the European Joint Aviation Authorities.
Morier says that given that background work, which included extensive industry, military and national government consultation over two years, the A-NPA would have been released earlier this year. It has been slowed down only because of the intensive workload facing EASA to establish its role as Europe’s primary air safety regulator.
The draft policy will be applicable to UAVs above a maximum take-off weight of 150kg (330lb), says Morier. Smaller UAVs will remain subject to regulations developed by individual EU member states. The primary approach will be based on tailoring EASA’s basic Part 21 regulations for aircraft certification. “We will try to use a process to select appropriate manned airworthiness goals or certification specifications and then adapt them to the UAVs,” he says. “We will complement this scheme by a UAV safety system analysis, analysing the whole UAV system which is being proposed [for certification], not only the air vehicle but also the ground systems, and any special conditions for specifications such as datalinks, control station and human factors issues.”
But the A-NPA will address sense-and-avoid issues only indirectly, he adds. “Defining sense-and-avoid is more for our air traffic management colleagues [at Eurocontrol]. What the sense-and-avoid criteria are depends heavily on what is the kind of airspace the UAV is operating in and whether it is working with co-operative or non-co-operative targets. We will only address how to certify it when the system will be defined for the appropriate airspace.”
That approach, says Morier, reflects the over-arching incremental strategy pursued by EASA that will begin with the A-NPA. “What we do is just one brick of what we need to do to assure the safe introduction of UAVs into the airspace.”
Sabatini says the FAA is treating the A-NPA as a “strawman” document to help shape common transatlantic thinking. “One thing was perfectly clear and agreed to when we concluded the EASA conference in Cologne, and that was if ever there was an opportunity to be harmonised at the very beginning, it is this opportunity and we aim to get it right,” he says.
The FAA will also pursue an “incremental approach” to developing regulations. UAVs represent a “segment of aviation begging for standards”, he says. “We must answer the call – and we will. We are committed to addressing the safe integration of unmanned air systems into our airspace. Unmanned air systems are front and centre in the FAA’s strategic plan.”
The main vehicle for co-ordinating FAA policy is a newly formed headquarters working group headed up by Fazio that will oversee a long-term, three-stage roadmap for UAV integration. Each step of the roadmap will see a Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) issued.
The first will establish a new visual flight rules-based regulatory regime – given the working designation SFAR 01 – to replace the existing certificate of authorisation (COA) arrangements in place since 1997 as the primary means of allowing limited UAV operations in US airspace.
SFAR 01 must be seen as “our preliminary effort” and will be issued for public comment by 2007, says Steve Swartz of the FAA’s flight technology and procedures division and part of the headquarters working group. “What this regulation seeks to do is lay the ground-work; explain some of the terminology, declare that unmanned aircraft are indeed aircraft; that the FAA intends to regulate them; and it will set up rules essentially for line-of-sight operation just for those small UAVs that can be controlled, with collision conflict avoided by visually watching the unmanned aircraft operate.”
A basic draft of SFAR 01 has already been written he says, “but is not releasable in its current state”. Work on the document is proceeding more slowly than hoped, he concedes. A second iteration – SFAR 02 – is planned to be finished by 2013, says Swartz. “This will open up the rest of the national airspace.” But this step depends on the availability of sense-and-avoid technology, he adds. “We have heard anywhere from five to 10 years [for that technology to mature] and as much as $2 billion to put together a certifiable sense-and-avoid system. What the real figures are we don’t know, but for SFAR 02 we think we are going to have to wait until we have a certified system.” SFAR 03 “will mark the time when we have a complete environment, no restrictions at all – unmanned aircraft can operate virtually everywhere in the NAS”, says Swartz. This transition is expected to be achieved by 2020.
In the near term, as part of the jump-starting process to reach that 15-year goal, the FAA plans to issue a note of proposed rule making (NPRM) late this year. The draft of that document currently carries the designation Flight Standards policy letter 05/01.
Swartz says the document still has to complete final internal FAA review, but “discusses what it takes to fly in the national airspace in terms of things like pilot qualification rules, observer rules, guidance for chase aircraft operations, limits on the use of radar [and] pilot responsibilities”. He adds: “It limits the pilot to one unmanned aircraft at a time. It prescribes flight visibility rules, lost link rules. It gives some RF spectrum guidance. It limits flights over populated area and also addresses the carriage of hazardous materials.”
In parallel with the N-PRM and SFAR 01 work, the FAA is now at an advanced stage of processing the first successful applications for experimental certification of UAVs operations (Flight International, 26 July–1 August).
The first of these is expected to be awarded to Bell Helicopter for its Eagle Eye tiltrotor UAV now under development for the US Coast Guard. However, there is strong pressure from within the Access 5 community for that honour to be accorded to the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-1 Predator-based on the vast amounts of user data available for that aircraft compared to the Eagle Eye.
“The Bell application is the first certification project the FAA has accepted,” says Swartz. “There are two more that they have accepted also – one from General Atomics and one from Boeing. We [the FAA’s flight technologies and procedures division] are involved in helping the [FAA] certification service put together limitations and exemptions for those certification requests.”
According to Sabatini, the three requests are in the final stages of review and he expects to issue the first experimental airworthiness certificate to an unmanned aircraft manufacturer by year-end. “These experimental certification requests provide a great opportunity to work with manufacturers and to collect key technical and operational data that will help us as we move forward.”
The experimental certificates will draw heavily on draft certification concepts developed by the Unite/Access 5 group, says Swartz. The Bell case is “essentially using the process that Access 5 put together”, he says. Likewise, the NPRM will also include concepts drawn directly from that organisation’s proposals, he adds. “We are getting a constant flow of good work products now out of Access 5. And although Access 5 is focused on high-altitude endurance, it is a fairly pervasive project when you look over four phases, and we really are getting insight into unmanned air system operations in the entire national airspace.”
Access 5 itself is planning to release a public version of its certification proposals late this year. Fazio says: “We are really just now in the data-gathering and educational phase as to how these vehicles operate. To do that, we want to leverage Access 5’s industry expertise and work with them to optimise their work products, to facilitate our shared goal of providing UAV access to the national airspace.”
The FAA has been issuing certificates of authorisation for UAV operations in US airspace since 1997. According to John Timmerman, FAA head of systems operations, 28 COAs were issued in the 2004 calendar year, and there were 300 documented UAV flights in US airspace during the 2004 fiscal year. But he points out the actual number of flights is not known because the FAA often issues blanket authorisation permits to government agencies – such as the armed forces – to conduct those flights over a protracted period. “The army, for example, has told us that any estimates we have made about the total actual number of UAV flights may be off by a factor of as much as 10,” he says.
Swartz says COA applications are up 300% this year. “That increase is pretty significant and these aren’t all military. We are getting a lot of civil applicants. The civil end of the world is definitely alive and healthy.” However, current UAV operations still represent only a fraction of 1% of the number of total flights within US airspace.
Timmerman says the FAA reviewed its UAV COA process earlier this year and made the disturbing discovery that there are “significant shortfalls in the equivalent level of safety” being practised. “Generally, what was happening was that some people were making subjective assessment of what they personally perceived as acceptable levels of safety. That was occurring both by the proponents and by the COA processors. There was a lack of substantiating safety data, and safety case information associated with the requests.
“There was a widespread use, over time, of a single mitigator for a flight regime to wrap the safety around this aircraft. Commonly that had gone from the initial use of unmanned aircraft where we had ground observers [and] chase aircraft until we got into airspace where air traffic control maintains full control of all the aircraft in the environment – in class A airspace. That, over time, had lessened to the point where some of these aircraft were flying with ATC radar as their only method of seeing other aeroplanes around them.
“The safety determinations were primarily being made by the operators in the air traffic organisation – the service providers – instead of the regulators, where the fundamental responsibility in the FAA rests. We felt there was co-ordination with some of the field element flight standards, but they didn’t have a lot of guidance on what was acceptable from headquarters and what wasn’t,” he says.
Much work lies ahead, Timmerman stresses, to track UAV operations in the same manner as those of manned aircraft. “We have a lot to learn about these aircraft, and the real challenge will be how to mix their performance with that of manned aircraft, especially at the low-altitude end.”
PETER LA FRANCHI/PARIS AND LONDON
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY PAUL SEIDENMAN IN SAN FRANCISCO