Drones pose challenges for storage terminals

Dec. 4, 2015
Safety risk associated with irresponsible actions by drone operators.

DRONES, or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), are “an incredibly contentious topic” and are in the news on an almost daily basis, according to Charles Raley, senior attorney for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of The Chief Counsel. Raley discussed drones and the challenge they could pose to storage terminals during the International Liquid Terminals Association’s 2015 International Operating Conference held earlier this year in Houston, Texas.

The Good: After heavy flooding in Texas in June, drones were used for search-and-rescue operations and aerial surveying of damage.

The Bad: A Delta Shuttle nearly collided with a drone at 2700 feet while on descent into LaGuardia Airport on May 29. In the second half of 2014, commercial airlines and air-traffic controllers alerted the FAA to 25 similar incidents.

The Ugly: Spanish pop star Enrique Iglesias had to undergo reconstructive surgery on his right hand after it was sliced open when he grabbed a photo-taking drone during a May 30 concert in Tijuana, Mexico—a regular part of his act that probably won’t be from now on.

For storage terminals, one of the biggest concerns is a drone entering a facility without permission or proper supervision. Irresponsible actions by a drone operator could pose serious safety risks to workers and the general public.

How does the FAA address all of this?

“We have the responsibility to maintain the safety of people and property,” he said. “We are not a security agency. We are about the safe and efficient movement of people and property through air space. And that’s where a lot of tension lies with unmanned aircraft. We do have a plan for safe and staged integration. It may be a plan that is too slow for some and too fast for others. But we are following a road map.

“We are making progress to achieve a goal—rulemaking which will cover the commercial use of UAS. We’ve been granting exemptions and ramping up the exemption process. Enforcement is the key to safe integration into the national airspace system. If we don’t have effective enforcement, the safe part of staged integration just doesn’t work out.”

According to the FAA, a UAS is the unmanned aircraft (UA) and all of the associated support equipment, control station, data links, telemetry, communications and navigation equipment, etc., necessary to operate the unmanned aircraft. The UA is the flying portion of the system, flown by a pilot via a ground control system, or autonomously through use of an on-board computer, communication links and any additional equipment that is necessary for the UA to operate safely. The FAA issues an experimental airworthiness certificate for the entire system, not just the flying portion of the system.

The FAA announced February 15 a framework of regulations that would allow routine use of certain small UAS in today’s aviation system, while maintaining flexibility to accommodate future technological innovations.

The FAA proposal offers safety rules for small UAS (under 55 pounds) conducting non-recreational operations. The rule would limit flights to daylight and visual-line-of-sight operations. It also addresses height restrictions, operator certification, optional use of a visual observer, aircraft registration and marking, and operational limits.

The proposed rule also includes extensive discussion of the possibility of an additional, more flexible framework for “micro” UAS under 4.4 pounds. The FAA is asking the public to comment on this possible classification to determine whether it should include this option as part of a final rule.

The proposed rule would require an operator to maintain visual line of sight of a small UAS. The rule would allow, but not require, an operator to work with a visual observer who would maintain constant visual contact with the aircraft. The operator would still need to be able to see the UAS with unaided vision (except for glasses). The FAA is asking for comments on whether the rules should permit operations beyond line of sight, and if so, what the appropriate limits should be.

Under the proposed rule, the person actually flying a small UAS would be an “operator.” An operator would have to be at least 17 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test and obtain an FAA UAS operator certificate. To maintain certification, the operator would have to pass the FAA knowledge tests every 24 months. A small UAS operator would not need any further private pilot certifications (i.e., a private pilot license or medical rating).

The new rule also proposes operating limitations designed to minimize risks to other aircraft and people and property on the ground:

• A small UAS operator must always see and avoid manned aircraft. If there is a risk of collision, the UAS operator must be the first to maneuver away.

• The operator must discontinue the flight when continuing would pose a hazard to other aircraft, people or property.

• A small UAS operator must assess weather conditions, airspace restrictions and the location of people to lessen risks if he or she loses control of the UAS.

• A small UAS may not fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight.

• Flights should be limited to 500 feet altitude and no faster than 100 mph.

• Operators must stay out of airport flight paths and restricted airspace areas, and obey any FAA Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs).

The proposed rule maintains the existing prohibition against operating in a careless or reckless manner. It also would bar an operator from allowing any object to be dropped from the UAS.

Operators would be responsible for ensuring an aircraft is safe before flying, but the FAA is not proposing that small UAS comply with current agency airworthiness standards or aircraft certification. For example, an operator would have to perform a preflight inspection that includes checking the communications link between the control station and the UAS. Small UAS with FAA-certificated components also could be subject to agency airworthiness directives.

The new rules would not apply to model aircraft.  However, model aircraft operators must continue to satisfy all of the criteria specified in Sec. 336 of Public Law 112-95, including the stipulation that they be operated only for hobby or recreational purposes. Generally speaking, the new rules would not apply to government aircraft operations, because we expect that these government operations will typically continue to actively operate under the Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) process unless the operator opts to comply with and fly under the new small UAS regulations.

“Rulemaking is a laborious process,” Raley said. “Years may pass before the notice comes out. It takes 60 days after the notice comes out for a comment period. Then we have to review those comments and put out a final rule. Our hope is that sometime in the next year we will have this out. Congress is very interested in this area.”

In May, the FAA selected a Mississippi State University team as the FAA’s Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (COE UAS). The COE will focus on research, education and training in areas critical to safe and successful integration of UAS into the nation’s airspace.

The team brings together 15 of the nation’s leading UAS and aviation universities that have a proven commitment to UAS research and development and the necessary resources to provide the matching contribution to the government’s investment.

The COE research areas are expected to evolve over time, but initially will include: detect and avoid technology; low-altitude operations safety; control and communications; spectrum management; human factors; compatibility with air traffic control operations; and training and certification of UAS pilots and other crewmembers, in addition to other areas.

The FAA also recently announced plans to create a taskforce to develop recommendations for a registration process for UAS aircraft. Composed of 25 to 30 representatives from the UAS and manned aviation industries, the federal government, and other stakeholders, the taskforce will advise the FAA on which aircraft should be exempt from registration due to low safety risk, including toys and other small UAS.   ♦

About the Author

Rick Weber | Associate Editor

Rick Weber has been an associate editor for Trailer/Body Builders since February 2000. A national award-winning sportswriter, he covered the Miami Dolphins for the Fort Myers News-Press following service with publications in California and Australia. He is a graduate of Penn State University.