Managing the Growing Popularity of Unmanned Aircraft Systems
As more NASA programs and projects begin using Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs) to achieve their missions, the agency must carefully implement policies and controls to ensure safety. Concurrently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is developing regulations for the National Airspace (NAS) as UASs gain popularity with government organizations, industry and the general public.
“There are three things we are trying to mitigate when operating a UAS,” explained Jamal Abbed, aviation safety officer at NASA Headquarters (HQ). “[We’re trying to] not endanger the public, other aircraft or the asset.”
Currently, NASA flies UASs under two conditions: 1) within restricted NASA ranges, or property, under the agency’s own authorization or 2) in NAS with FAA approval and authorization.
“The biggest challenge is flying in national airspace,” said Abbed. “They [UASs] are going to be operating in airspace with aircraft, with people on board, and that is a big risk that needs to be addressed.”
When operating UASs on NASA property, programs and projects must adhere to NASA Procedural Requirements (NPR) 7900.3, Aircraft Operations Management Manual. The manual lays out specific requirements, including pilot training, aircraft maintenance, airworthiness and the investigation process in case of a mishap.
“Most centers are getting more involved in UASs — proliferation is the challenge,” said John Lapointe, aviation safety manager at HQ. “The UAS community is just growing and growing, and that’s the challenge we have.”
NASA’s Aircraft Management Division (AMD) is working to standardize center processes across the agency so that everyone is following the same rules when flying in restricted airspace at NASA ranges.
“One of the big things for the agency with the proliferation of UASs among researchers and scientists is that we [the division] work with all the centers so [that] anytime anyone acquires or operates a UAS, they work with the center flight ops department or aircraft office to make sure the aircraft is captured in the database and the pilot operates in accordance with NASA policy,” said Abbed.
“[In our oversight role] we go every two years to accomplish aviation reviews and to check how centers are following the rules and policies in our NPRs when they operate UASs, whether in restricted airspace or in the NAS,” added Lapointe.
If a center or facility doesn’t have a flight ops department but wants to use a UAS for a project, the AMD will assign a nearby center to assist in ensuring all range safety policies are followed.
“We have to have a range safety officer at every center that UASs are operated, and if you don’t [have one], we’ll get someone from a nearby center,” explained Lapointe.
Currently, NASA operates under public use authority when flying in NAS by obtaining a certificate of authorization from the FAA. However, official regulations for civil operators are still in development. Congress has directed the FAA to put policy in place that will apply to all operators of small UASs.
Challenges facing the FAA include determining requirements for pilot qualifications and proficiency, how UASs should be built and to what standard, and what configuration and equipment should be used.
“Developing rules for our UASs to operate is a big challenge,” said Abbed. “There is a ‘sense and avoid’ need when operating around other aircraft. Now that you don’t have eyes on the aircraft, you’re responsible.”
The Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate is working with the FAA on research to determine the best ways for the administration to test flight environments in either real or simulated conditions. The results of these tests will provide guidance on regulations.
FAA regulations are expected to be in place in the next year.