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TTD Calls for Strong Safety Standards for Drone Integration

By Admin

Lance Nuckolls
Office of Aviation Safety
Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office, AFS-80
Federal Aviation Administration
490 L’Enfant Plaza East, SW Suite 3200
Washington, DC  20024

RE:  Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems
Notice of Proposed Rulemaking
Docket No. FAA-2015-0150; Notice No. 15-01
RIN 2120-AJ60
Federal Aviation Administration

Dear Mr. Nuckolls:

On behalf of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO (TTD), I write to comment on the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on the Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS). By way of background, TTD consists of 32 affiliate unions that represent transportation workers, including aviation crewmembers who operate in the National Airspace System (NAS) and the air traffic controllers (ATC) who safely separate NAS air traffic.  We therefore have a vested interest in this proceeding. In addition to our comments below, we endorse those filed by an affiliate, the Air Line Pilots Association.

Under this NPRM, FAA creates new 14 CFR part 107 to regulate the operation of non-recreational small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) in the NAS; the certification of sUAS operators; and the requirements of the small unmanned aircrafts. Finding that sUAS are capable of safely operating in the NAS, FAA proposes this rulemaking in accordance with the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 and begins the integration of small commercial UAS into our nation’s airspace.

The integration of sUAS presents an entirely new concept and one that must be implemented in a responsible and safety focused manner. While the potential commercial applications of sUAS have garnered much public attention, TTD continues its call for strong regulations that balance the potential economic value of sUAS and the absolute necessity of maintaining the existing high level of safety of the NAS.  We are pleased that FAA has issued a proposal to begin its work of implementing a framework for the operation of commercial sUAS. To strengthen this proposal and ensure one level of safety, TTD urges FAA to address the provisions as indicated below.

Defining sUAS Operator
FAA proposes to use the term ‘operator’ to identify the “person who manipulates the flight controls of a small unmanned aircraft system.” We oppose using the term ‘operator’ to describe the person controlling a sUAS. Instead, FAA should identify this individual as a ‘pilot’ who has Pilot in Command authority.

We believe the NPRM’s use of operator would cause confusion with the current and common use of that term as defined at 14 CFR 1.1. At present, operator refers to an air carrier or the owner of an aircraft, not the individual operating aircraft controls. Moreover, proposed 107.19 assigns to the individual operating sUAS controls the final authority and direct responsibility for the operation of the system, both of which are required of the Pilot in Command as defined in 14 CFR 1.1.

We recognize the inherent differences in the operation of sUAS and manned aircraft. But as explained below, the NPRM makes it possible for sUAS to occupy the same airspace as manned commercial flights, and it is also possible that these pilots may inadvertently direct their unmanned aircraft into an airspace that they are not permitted to occupy. As such, sUAS pilots must fully understand the requirements and responsibilities of pilots of commercial manned aircraft in order to anticipate that pilot’s response and avoid collisions. Accordingly, sUAS pilots should hold and complete comparable certification and training as traditional commercial pilots.

Operator Certification
We oppose the proposal that sUAS pilots obtain an unmanned aircraft operator certificate with a sUAS rating. As noted above, we believe that the new standards FAA puts in place must ensure one level of safety for all who operate in the NAS. To achieve this goal, sUAS pilots must be held to an equivalent level of training, qualification, and certification requirements as currently required of aircraft pilots. We agree with the agency that a sUAS pilot must maintain an airman certificate; however, given that this rule governs the use of sUAS for compensation and hire purposes and that it proposes to allow sUAS to share airspace with manned aircraft, pilots of these unmanned systems should hold at least a Commercial Pilot Certificate and thus also be a minimum of 18 years old.

Medical Certification
Similarly, we oppose FAA’s plans not to require sUAS pilots to maintain medical certification. Current 14 CFR Part 61 requires those operating with a Commercial Pilot Certificate to maintain a second-class FAA medical certificate. As such, FAA should extend this requirement to sUAS pilots who intend to operate the aircraft for commercial purposes.

We recognize the value of the proposal in 107.61 and 107.63 to require sUAS pilots to attest that they do not know or have reason to know that they have a physical or mental condition that would interfere with the safe operation of their sUAS. But, we question whether these operators would know which conditions may degrade safety, and we ultimately believe professionals trained to perform medical exams should be responsible for certifying that sUAS pilots are fit to operate.

Operator Training and Testing
We agree with FAA that testing to ensure an applicant has sufficient aeronautical knowledge to safely operate a sUAS in the NAS is critical to upholding safety. We support testing on the knowledge of weather effects, airport operations and radio communication procedures, and sUAS flight restrictions, among other specified testing elements. And we endorse the requirement for recurrent knowledge testing.

However, we oppose FAA’s plan not to require training, experience, or skills testing prior to certification or thereafter. Without these requirements, it is possible that a sUAS pilot could obtain and maintain certification without any real experience or ever demonstrating that her/his operating skills are, or have remained, proficient. Aircraft pilots are required to complete training, obtain hours of experience, and pass skills test for initial certification and periodically thereafter. Similar requirements should be applied to sUAS pilots.

Visual Observers
We support the use of a visual observer (VO) and recommend that every sUAS operation include one pilot and at least one qualified VO working together to operate a single sUAS at a time. As FAA describes, there will be moments when a pilot must momentarily look away from the sUAS to scan the airspace, watch for moving people, or look at aircraft controls. VOs’ assistance in these moments and throughout the operation will benefit pilots’ ability to see and avoid air traffic and other objects and reduce the need to use emergency maneuvers to avoid collisions.

Given VOs role in the safe operation of a sUAS, we request FAA to issue guidance indicating the training VOs should complete. We also encourage the agency to clarify the requirement at 107.33(d)(2) that operators and VOs “maintain awareness of the position of the small unmanned aircraft through direct visual observation” (emphasis added). FAA briefly describes in the preamble that it would be permissible for one’s line of sight to be temporarily obstructed by an object. The agency should clarify when and to what degree obstruction of one’s visual observation is permitted under the rule.

Additionally, FAA explains, the vision of VOs (as well as pilots) must be sufficient to enable the individual to know the location of a sUAS, observe air traffic and hazards, and be able to determine the aircraft’s altitude, attitude, and direction, and whether the operation endangers life or property. But without any requirement to display skill proficiency or determine vision quality, neither the VO, pilot, nor FAA can be sure one’s vision can be relied upon. We request FAA to address this concern.

Airspace Operation Restrictions, Requirements of sUAS
We believe that standards and technologies for sUAS must be in place and sufficient data must be collected before consideration is given to allowing sUAS to occupy the same space as commercial aircraft or to operate in areas where sUAS might inadvertently stray into airspace used by commercial flights. The very need for this proceeding demonstrates that the integration of sUAS into the NAS is an entirely new concept and thus sufficient data on potential safety implications of their integration is not yet available.

Despite this, FAA proposes to permit sUAS operations in Class B, C, D, and E airspace if the pilot obtains prior authorization from the ATC facility that has jurisdiction over the airspace. Additionally, FAA does not propose sUAS design requirements that limit altitude or avoid geographic features – technology that could prove critical if the aircraft-pilot communication connection becomes lost. In effect, an approved sUAS could share airspace with commercial aircraft transporting passengers and/or cargo without any required technology to limit its flight if communication is lost.

Accordingly, we oppose permitting sUAS to operate in Class B, C, D, and E airspace altogether, and we strongly urge the agency to adopt design provisions that ensure sUAS remain in the intended airspace when operating optimally as well risk mitigation technology when command controls are lost.  Doing so eliminates unnecessary and avoidable risks until information on sUAS operating capabilities and performance is collected. We also question whether the limited testing requirement for an ‘operator’ as envisioned by this NPRM would make the individual capable of effectively communicating with ATC, identifying and avoiding classified airspace, and measuring the altitude of the sUAS. Without these skills, the need for restricted operations and design provisions are ever more important.

We are pleased with FAA’s recognition that model aircraft (sUAS flown for hobby or recreational purposes) are subject to some level of FAA oversight. By adding model aircraft to 14 CFR part 101, FAA asserts its authority to pursue enforcement action against hobbyists flying sUAS in ways that endanger NAS safety. However, the recreational use of sUAS remain outside the scope of the new part 107 regulations established by this NPRM. While we support FAA formalizing its authority to enforce the safety of the NAS, more must be done to regulate the operation of recreational sUAS.

The U.S. aviation system is the safest in the world. We can maintain this high level of safety while integrating commercial sUAS if we enact thoughtful and strong safety standards. TTD reiterates our commitment to ensuring one level of safety that holds all operators in the NAS to an equivalent level of responsibility. We appreciate the opportunity to comment on this important proceeding, and we request the issues raised above be given due consideration.

Edward Wytkind

TTD Calls for Strong Safety Standards for Drone Integration (4 mb)

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