I know many readers disagree when I say electric aviation is not the future. But when I hear that electric aviation exists, you realize that I’m not pooping on electric aviation, but I may be too optimistic. The facts are: Yes, electric aviation is already here. The electric version of the 747 isn’t immediately visible, but flights to planes that once spewed dirty lead avgas and kerosene are frequent on battery-powered “drones.”
(Officially, they are small unmanned aerial vehicle systems or sUAS, not drones because they require pilots, but they are all semantics)
Why drones can’t legally fly far from pilots
Drones had a major impact on industrial and public safety and could even save lives, but were primarily subject to one major limitation. It means that you cannot legally be far from the operator. FAA rules require you to stay within your “visual line of sight.” In other words, you can not only see the drone as a small spot in the air, but also know which direction the drone is actually facing. Also, you cannot do this using views from the camera or other telemetry.
The maximum distance that most pilots can legally travel is about a quarter mile, but this depends on the drone (larger from a distance is easier to see) and conditions.
Why does FAA do this? It dates back to the 1956 mid-air collision of two passenger planes over the Grand Canyon. Due to a series of misunderstandings and mistakes, the plane would fly in the same area at the same altitude and did not receive a warning that another plane was in that area. By the time the pilots saw each other’s planes, it was too late to act (apparently one pilot tried) and the planes tore each other in the sky. Both planes fell into the canyon, and neither plane survived.
After the accident, many important reforms took place. One was the creation of FAA itself. Second, the first death of more than 100 people in the accident has greatly increased awareness of the dangers of mid-air collisions. Despite various changes to the procedure, the FAA did not want pilots to rely on others for safety. In addition to other safety measures, pilots of all aircraft must “see and avoid” other aircraft. This rule applies to all aircraft, including drones.
With a drone, you have to be able to see the drone as well as other aircraft because you are not inside. That way, you can see and execute evasive actions. So you can’t fly it far before you can’t really do it.
This sucks, so changes are happening
Not being able to fly a drone over long distances makes it difficult for people to do what they want to do. Drone delivery, some search and rescue operations, and even some types of photography are difficult or impossible under current rules.
One way to get around the “see and avoid” rule is to get an exemption from the FAA. To be exempt, you need to be able to prove to your agency that you have found another suitable way to detect another aircraft and avoid a collision. Several different ways to do this have been approved by the agency, but all approvals are limited in scope and often limited by distance or altitude. Public security agencies also have some limited legal capacity to work beyond the line of sight, but only relatively close to the ground.
Agents want to allow pilots more, so they are working on making rules that allow more people to go further without applying for an exemption. The rule-making process is currently underway, and government agencies are reaching out for feedback from the general public. You can send comments like any other federal regulation-making process, but recently they held a live event to get input. This can be seen here.
One of the key points pointed out by Jay Merkle, FAA’s Secretary-General of the UAS Integrated Office, is that the FAA’s rules have been based on the assumptions of manned aircraft for decades. The regulatory process goes slowly, and while rules such as “see and avoid” are important, they were not created with unmanned or unmanned aircraft in mind.
To improve the situation for drone pilots, we need to move away from old assumptions and move into a future that keeps things safe while regulating based on the reality of drones. To get there, the FAA first placed a group of people (called ARC) representing various stakeholders in this process and asked them to make recommendations. You can read the entire report here (it’s long), or you can read the summary here. However, the FAA couldn’t create rules based solely on the opinions of selected people, so it started the process and held an online conference (video above).
Comments from the general public, as well as pilots, can be sent to 9-FAA-UAS-BVLOS@faa.gov until June 29, 2022 for consideration during the rule-making process. So if you have any ideas, be sure to send them!
Some notable comments the agency got at the online conference
The first man to comment represented a “crop duster,” a pilot who dropped aerial sprays of chemicals, seeds, flame retardants, etc. onto crops and lands. Crop dusters have been hostile to drone pilots in the past, as they often fly low where drones are allowed to fly. He emphasized the importance of his industry and then expressed his concern that his recommendations could pose a safety issue for the crop industry.
It is worth noting that he omitted important things. Crop dusters are afraid that unmanned aerial vehicles will replace manned crop dusting aircraft. Therefore, his comments are financially motivated and should be considered in that context, but he should look for the best possible comments.
Some of the representatives of industry representatives who want the ARC report (link above) to be reflected in the final rules have spoken favorably about the report. It’s important to remember that, like those in the crop duster industry, these views are also motivated by financial considerations. These groups also provide valuable perspectives to consider.
Another commentator representing the helicopter industry had problems excluding BVLOS drones only from areas within 1/2 of the nautical mile from the heliport. He believes that the ARC recommendations still create risk and include many other undisclosed designated areas where helicopters land and take off, including heliports that were not on the list for some reason. not. In many cases, the information is inaccurate and outdated, making it difficult for pilots to coordinate with heliports.
Experimental pilot representatives, like crop duster representatives, wanted the FAA to always prioritize manned aircraft in all regulations and had similar ideas to helicopter pilot representatives. She was also concerned that low-altitude aircraft might have to spend money on collision avoidance equipment because ADSB is inadequate or impossible.
If you hear everything, it’s clear that this is not a simple matter. There are significant benefits from existing users in need of safety, people who may lose their livelihoods, and expanding the flight of long-range drones. Balancing all these in the final rule is not an easy task for the FAA.
Featured image: Construction of El Paso, Texas. Permission is required to fly in this area (airport rules), and many helicopters pass through during filming and cannot fly. Image by Jennifer Sensiva.
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