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Rules & Regulations

What's Your Sitch?

Maximize your situational awareness for safer flying

August 24, 2015

A commercial pilot by training, I believed that the future of aviation was in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and made a career change. Now, instead of a business jet, I fly small unmanned aircraft for a living. Not the sexy, Predator-sized airplanes with a missile slung under each wing, but the smaller ones used for military observation and science research.

As a pilot of manned and unmanned aircraft, I sometimes struggle to bridge the gap between the two types and how they operate. I understand the apprehension of manned-aircraft pilots to adopt unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System (NAS). Videos of small quadcopters flying through cities, above crowded baseball fields, and around national monuments don’t often instill confidence in the competence of the operators.

Simply put, situational awareness is understanding what is happening around you. I’ve done the majority of my flying overseas operating small drones alongside army helicopters at low altitude. While some of the manned pilots understood the new technology, many did not. I frequently heard these pilots say that UAV operators do not have any situational awareness. Through smart use of technology and an understanding of how manned pilots think and operate, I demonstrated that drones and manned aircraft can fly in close proximity. In fact, on several occasions I flew my drone alongside helicopters only a few hundred feet away while communicating with the crew.

There is no reason drone pilots can’t achieve situational awareness similar to pilots of manned aircraft. This includes knowledge of your aircraft system, the operating area, common procedures and rules, and anticipating what may happen during a flight. Building situational awareness takes considerable effort but will go a long way toward establishing confidence in a future when unmanned and manned aircraft regularly fly together.

The rules as they stand

In the U.S., drone hobbyists fall under the rules laid out by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Advisory Circular 91-57, Model Aircraft Operating Standards. Drone entrepreneurs, however, have to go to considerable lengths in order to legally operate a drone for commercial purposes. Let’s stick to hobbyists.

There are only a couple of hard rules for you to follow:

1. Keep your altitude below 400 feet above ground level (AGL).

2. Do not operate within 3 nautical miles (3.45 miles) of an airport without notifying the airport’s controlling agency.

Rule 1 is intended to keep hobby aircraft below the general obstacle clearance for manned aircraft operating in sparsely populated areas (500 feet from any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure). Rule 2 is meant to separate hobby aircraft from climbing and descending private and commercial aircraft.

Although you can legally fly within these guidelines, doing so does not automatically make you safe. For example, manned aircraft regularly fly lower than 400 feet AGL over sparsely populated areas. How low are they flying in your area? Knowing makes you safe.
Jason McNally preps a Silver Fox fixed-wing surveillance drone for flight in Afghanistan.
Mission planning

Like a mosquito flying into a glowing blue bug zapper, it seems drone pilots can’t resist flying over heavily populated locations. It’s natural to want to see things from a different perspective, especially if you have the technology to get a bird’s-eye view. I once saw a quadcopter fly over a crowded beer festival in a baseball stadium, and I immediately wondered about the operator’s flight experience.

Don’t be that guy!

Treat your flights like missions. Plan. Think ahead. Consider what you’re doing and where.

Ask yourself:
  • What is the purpose of my flight?
  • Where are any hazards in the flight area, and what is my proximity to them?
  • How long will I be in the air? What’s my distance from my vehicle? How far will I fly it?
  • Do I have any line-of-sight considerations (will you always have eyes on your bird)?
Know your drone

Today’s drones come with loads of technology pre-installed. Even the smallest multirotor craft often have more technology onboard than a lot of aging general aviation airplanes from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. GPS navigation and position feedback come standard in autopilot software, as do moving maps and terrain elevation information.

Some hobbyists, often in a rush to get airborne, don’t take the time to learn the basics about their vehicles, particularly the autopilot features. Be sure to study your autopilot software and user interface. You don’t want your copter to think Tallahassee is home base while you’re flying in Austin.

Also, avoid information overload. It seems the more expensive and elaborate a drone is, the more telemetry it comes with: compass overlay; tools for measuring distance flown, bearing, distance from the transmitter, and remaining power; user-definable map orientation; and on and on. Explore your options and decide what information is most helpful to you. Too much information can be just as bad as too little. Keep your attention on the telemetry critical to your current mission.

Fig. 1: Non-towered airport flight pattern
The legs of a standard landing pattern are crosswind, downwind, base, and final. Knowing the landing pattern near an airport can help avoid close calls.
Illustration: Rick Johnson
Common procedures and reporting points

Discussions about unmanned aerial systems (UAS) integration into the NAS tend to revolve around sense-and-avoid or see-and-avoid capabilities in UAVs. Yes, the camera view from a UAV does not match the peripheral vision of a pilot in a manned aircraft. However, you can still attain the same level of situational awareness by listening to activity in your airspace.

Ask any manned-aircraft pilot how to avoid other air traffic at an uncontrolled airport (one without a tower) and you’ll find out it’s a combination of position reports, established procedures, and visual cues.

If you’re operating near an airport, you’ll benefit from investing in a VHF air radio and listening to the local common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF). You can pick up an air band scanner online for less than $100, while transceivers can run $120 or more (see References and Links). By monitoring CTAF, you’ll become familiar with radio transmissions and receive important information about approaching and departing manned aircraft.

For instance, pilots usually announce their position while 5 to 10 miles from the airport. The position report will always be relative to the airport. For example, “Cessna 1234 is 5 nautical miles north of the airport at 4,500 feet.” The pilot might then relay intentions to enter on a particular leg of a standard landing pattern (Fig. 1). The traditional entry for an inbound aircraft is 45 degrees to the downwind leg of the active runway’s landing pattern. Visual Flight Rules (VFR) sectional maps depict other common entry points (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2
On the VFR chart, a flag notes Rillito cement plant because it is commonly used by pilots to report position 3 miles east of airport.
Image AirNav.com
Even if you are more than 5 nautical miles from an airport, there may be training areas where pilots frequently practice ground-reference maneuvers and emergency procedures. These can occasionally bring manned aircraft below 500 feet AGL and into the section of airspace that you may choose to fly your drone. Since most pilots operating in these practice areas tend to announce their position relative to the closest airport, having an air radio tuned to the local airport CTAF will keep you informed and improve your awareness of other aircraft in the airspace you share.

Also, familiarize yourself with local airport procedures, because it can help you avoid an accident. Such information can be found in an FAA Airport/Facility Directory (A/FD) or on a website like www.airnav.com.
When it all goes wrong

Fixed-wing aircraft and single-rotor helicopters tend to follow the physics of manned aircraft; multirotor aircraft have unique failures and associated emergency procedures. Recovering drones after a system failure varies because of the variety of types. The problems you’ll most likely encounter with a drone are loss of power or propulsion, loss of communication, and GPS failure.

For many drones, loss of power means an immediate loss of altitude and control of the aircraft. Under these circumstances, if you’re flying over people or property, only luck can keep you from hurting someone or damaging something. If loss of power means your drone plummets like a stone, the only way to operate it safely is to make sure your planned flight doesn’t cross over buildings, people, or property that could be damaged if the vehicle crashes.

Fixed-wing and multirotor aircraft capable of flight without one or more of the motors operating allow additional options should they lose power. These aircraft merely need to be within a conservative gliding distance or have enough power to make it to a safe landing site.

Few things can be as frustrating as a loss of communication (LOC) with your drone. Make sure you’re familiar with your aircraft’s autopilot software and understand LOC procedures and your drone’s programmed responses. Many LOC flight paths are user definable. Take care to identify the safest route back to the point of origin (or home position) with regard to obstacles and people on the ground. Does your autopilot simply revert back to the takeoff point while flying at the highest previously commanded altitude? Does your autopilot expect to follow a set of previously planned waypoints in the event of an LOC? If you tell me you aren’t sure or you don’t know, then you aren’t ready to fly.

GPS failure can be defined in many ways, but the result is mostly the same. The drone will be unable to hold a GPS position and possibly altitude (if altitude measurement is controlled via GPS). Also, you won’t have a reliable indication of the location on your ground-station display. For many drone systems, GPS failure means an automatic landing, but you might choose to fly your aircraft to a landing site via visual cues using an onboard camera or getting your eyes on the vehicle itself. Regardless of your chosen procedure, a GPS failure certainly hinders your capacity for situational awareness.
Training for drone pilots

Many companies and public universities are hustling to develop and promote a degree or technical qualification program for UAV operations. Be careful: Some programs offer nothing more than instruction in glorified remote-controlled aircraft, while others take a more comprehensive approach. Because there is no federal certification or licensing for drone pilots, the training is left open to interpretation.

For purposes of a small drone operator, an FAA-certified pilot ground school would be a relatively inexpensive (starting around $250; see References and Links) way to gain insight regarding the operation of manned aircraft and airspace structure in general.
References and Links

Airport information and aviation maps for your local area

Pilot supplies, air radios, aviation charts, books and videos, and survival equipment

Aviation ground school software

Regulations and helpful information for drone pilots
The future is already here

During military operations overseas, drone pilots already successfully operate alongside manned aircraft in large numbers. For the majority of mid- to high-altitude operations, the aircraft are separated vertically and horizontally and kept within certain designated operating zones. For low-altitude operations, small drones and manned aircraft are usually outside of air-traffic-control areas, so manned-aircraft and drone pilots rely on radio communications and preplanned operating areas for separation.

Much like uncontrolled airports in the U.S., successful separation of traffic depends upon the competence of each pilot and his or her level of awareness. Many drone pilots are proactive and take every opportunity to communicate directly with manned aviators to build rapport. Part of building situational awareness for unmanned operators is educating other airborne entities on the capabilities of their drones.

If drone operators consistently demonstrate good judgment and situational awareness, it becomes less likely the government will quarantine UAVs into certain areas within the national airspace. Conversely, irresponsible operations will further bolster the belief that drone operators lack situational awareness. What drones lack in seat-of-the-pants feel and a set of eyeballs in the cockpit, they can make up for with technology and operator know-how.

Note: A version of this story appears in the Drone360 Fall 2015 issue.