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ATW Editor's Blog

Why UAS is a misnomer and airliners must come first in rulemaking

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The reality of unmanned aerial systems – or UAS - is that’s it’s a misnomer – there is always a ‘man’ (or woman) behind an ‘unmanned’ system, and that person may be of good intent and responsible, or of evil intent and/or irresponsible.

FAA’s proposed rulemaking on small UAS in commercial airspace is, therefore, a long-overdue but welcome first step to providing a regulatory framework for how people can continue to exploit the potential that UAS offers, while maintaining the highest possible safety standards in commercial airline operations.

There have been far too many ‘close calls’ between airliners and UAS over the past few months, with many near-miss incidents reported close to major international airports. There is an urgent need to prohibit UAS from commercial airport space, enforce that ban with stiff penalties, and perhaps require an RFID tagging system to ensure compliance. 

The vast majority of infringements appear to have been accidental, which is bad enough given the potential consequences, but UAS regulatory oversight must also take into account the possibility of human malevolence. As UAS integration rulemaking is debated and comments are submitted from all stakeholders, the over-riding priority has to be commercial airline safety. UAS advocates will cite their needs, business aspirations and personal freedom rights. But FAA’s mandate is to ensure a safe airspace should be the non-negotiable foundation of UAS operations’ regulation.

This is in the best interests not just of the traveling public and air transport industry, but also of those who want to fully exploit UAS for legitimate business purposes. If one airliner is brought down, the game changes immediately. UAS advocates would likely be hamstrung by rushed-in, draconian rules that would set back their ambitions by years, maybe decades.

For everyone’s sake, but above all that of the airline industry, let’s not wait to see that happen.

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