Manufacturers say FAA delays are affecting testing

Calling for a better method of approving unmanned aircraft operations in civil airspace, manufacturers have warned US Congress that delays in Federal Aviation Administration certification are affecting testing and training.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) cannot fly the first of two Predator B unmanned air vehicles for the US Navy because the service does not have a certificate of authorisation (COA) from the FAA, president and chief executive Thomas Cassidy told a Congressional hearing last week.

“The Predator B is ready to fly, but cannot fly because there is no COA,” Cassidy said. Since October last year, the FAA can only issue COAs to government agencies and companies like GA-ASI must obtain experimental certification of the air vehicle to conduct flight testing and pilot training outside restricted airspace.

“COA approvals have slowed and we have experienced some delays,” said Dyke Weatherington, deputy of the Department of Defense’s unmanned aircraft systems planning task force. “But we are told a number of pending COAs are about to be approved.”

The FAA has approved more than 50 COAs in the past two years, and “expects to issue a record number” this year, said associate administrator for aviation safety Nick Sabatini. Only two experimental certificates have been granted, to GA-ASI’s Altair and Bell’s Eagle Eye, but the FAA has received 14 applications and expects to issue “at least two more experimental certificates this year”, he said.

Cassidy said GA-ASI crews operating Predator UAVs for the DoD and Department of Homeland Security are trained at airports that are not in restricted areas, and the company wants “one COA to operate aircraft in support of the military and homeland security” and to establish “reasonable and expanded” operating areas at its Gray Butte and El Mirage flight operations centres in California.

Fred Pease, executive director of the DoD’s policy board on federal aviation, said the COA process has been re-engineered, but “we have to make it more streamlined – we see a proliferation of requirements”.

“The COA is not a long-term solution”, Sabatini admitted, but certification of UAVs to “file and fly” like manned aircraft is dependent on development of sense-and-avoid and command and control technology that guarantees an equivalent level of safety.

Source: Flight International