The quarterly meeting of the committee created to advise FAA leadership on a range of issues related to the integration of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system included a readback from the FAA summarizing the various comments received from AOPA and other manned aviation groups to a request for information (RFI) issued in March. That RFI sought input on how the manned aviation community can potentially receive and use UAS remote ID information to reduce collision risks, and was related to the pending rule changes that will require most unmanned aircraft to broadcast position and other information electronically. The rule requiring remote identification of drones is reported to be in final review, and may be published before the end of the year.
Jay Merkle, the FAA official leading the agency’s unmanned aircraft integration effort, said the March RFI produced a “robust response” from aviators leery of being added to the remote ID mix as either passive or active participants. Pilots who routinely fly at lower altitudes for missions including law enforcement, agricultural application, emergency medical transport, and others told the FAA that they would prefer not to add another device warning of nearby drones to an already task-saturated and demanding job that offers precious little room for error.
Merkle said the sharply negative views expressed by airspace incumbents prompted a desire for a do-over.
“We felt we maybe missed the mark in communicating what we were looking for in the RFI,” Merkle said. “We’d like to take a second chance at this.”
Thus, the question was put to the committee anew on October 22, if somewhat rephrased: “Can Remote ID be used to increase situational awareness between manned aviation that routinely operates at low altitudes away from airports and UAS operating in the same airspace?”
Merkle did not have to wait long for pilots to answer that one:
Baker, a longtime aircraft owner who has helicopter and fixed-wing ratings, said that adding another new piece of required electronic equipment to aircraft that have already and recently been required to update their electronics to broadcast aircraft position via ADS-B (mandatory in certain airspace as of January 1, 2020) was likely to be a nonstarter: “More devices after just finishing ADS-B (would) be a very tough pill to swallow with any kind of significant adoption of new devices in the cockpit.”
Baker cautioned fellow committee members against expecting current pilots to shoulder additional burdens, including both equipment and shared responsibility for avoiding collisions with drones.
“I have very strong feelings about this,” said Mark Colborn, a Dallas police helicopter pilot who continues to serve on reserve status after retiring from a 40-year career.
“I think putting another device in the cockpit that’s going to warn of more traffic, especially drone traffic, I have problems with that because … it could become a distraction for the pilot and keep their eyes inside the cockpit when they should be looking out the window,” Colborn said. “That’s my biggest concern.”
Merkle said the FAA is working with NASA to further refine a concept of operations (CONOPS) that would guide the systems, equipment, and procedures used to separate aircraft in a future where delivery drones and other unmanned missions are expected to proliferate. CONOPS 3.0 is expected to be delivered in the second quarter of 2021, and Merkle suggested that the committee members may help find a balance that enhances safety without creating undue burdens. Though he stopped well short of ruling out a new equipment mandate, Merkle did suggest that active participation in unmanned aircraft traffic management may be limited, or optional.
“Maybe there are alternatives that we haven’t considered thus far such as participating in a service that‘s driven by UAS traffic management … using that to help generate situational awareness only when needed,” Merkle said. “We’re open to ideas.”