The unmanned aerial systems (UAS) revolution is having an effect on what’s flying and what it can do for people almost as dramatic as that of the introduction of powered manned flight. UAS have transitioned from science fiction novels to becoming an integral part of armed forces’ capability and now to myriad commercial business and enthusiast applications.

The potential for UAS to participate in search and rescue missions, conduct operations that are high-risk for humans, deliver medical supplies, survey crops and much more is no longer a pipedream. It’s happening and the use of UAS, understandably, is growing exponentially.

FAA’s proposed rulemaking on small UAS in civil 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 offer, while maintaining the highest possible safety standards in commercial airline operations (see article, page 11).

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. The reality of UAS is that it’s a misnomer—there is always a ‘man’ (or woman) behind an ‘unmanned’ system, and that person is most likely of good intent and responsible, but could be of evil intent and/or irresponsible.

As UAS integration rulemaking is debated and comments are submitted from all stakeholders, the overriding priority must be on commercial airline safety. UAS advocates will cite their needs, business aspirations and personal freedom rights. But FAA’s mandate 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.

FAA’s deserved reputation in airspace safety excellence gives the agency global influence, so this UAS rulemaking process will be watched around the world and will have an impact far beyond the United States. It is critical that the regulation is addressed as expeditiously as possible, but also with a golden rule at its core: Airline safety comes first.