Will the FAA Establish a New Commercial Drone Avionics Mandate?

The finalized version of the FAA’s proposed rules for operating commercial unmanned aircraft in U.S. airspace could be in place by Christmas of 2024.

The growth in commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)– and the increasing integration of drones into controlled airspace – has raised concerns with manned aircraft operators, air traffic controllers (ATCs) and the FAA about mid-air collisions. This concern motivated the FAA to release proposed rules for the Remote Identification of Unmanned Aircraft Systems on Dec. 26, 2019.

The FAA’s proposed remote identification rules have raised questions in the commercial UAS community about the place for avionics mandates for commercial drones, and what shape these rules should actually take. Also being discussed are the role of manned aircraft and helicopters in detecting UAS, and what surveillance links can alert ATCs about commercial drones in controlled airspace.

The FAA's Remote ID Proposal

The FAA’s proposal for remotely identifying unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) is founded upon all drones being equipped with some form of onboard ID-generating avionics. “Remote ID is the ability of an unmanned aircraft in flight to provide certain identification and location information that people on the ground and other airspace users can receive,” a representative for the FAA told Avionics International. “This is an important building block in the unmanned traffic management ecosystem as it will provide additional situation awareness to manned and unmanned aircraft.”

The remote ID avionics technology that the FAA wants to be included on commercial UAS and all other drones “will enable the agency and law enforcement to identify unmanned aircraft flying in U.S. airspace,” the FAA said, providing identifying information akin to how ADS–B and transponders do for manned aircraft.

Currently (and under the proposed rules), all unmanned drone operations in controlled airspace must be authorized by the FAA. Drone operators can request authorizations to fly under 400 feet in controlled airspace through the Low Altitude Authorization and Capability (LAANC), which automates the application and approval process for drone operators to obtain airspace authorizations, according to the agency.

LAANC therefore provides commercial drone pilots with the opportunity to fly safely in areas where air traffic controllers provide service and avoid any potential conflict with manned aircraft. However, that’s only on the commercial drone pilot’s side. The other side of this equation is where it starts to get complicated.

What about the ability of pilots to spot drones in controlled airspace?

“Manned aircraft ‘see and avoid’ other manned aircraft now, in some cases, unmanned aircraft as well,” the FAA representative said. “One of the biggest challenges is the volume of operations. There are nearly four times as many UAS as registered manned aircraft.”

Commercial UAS Industry Perspectives Vary

Based on the input from four UAS companies – Altitude Angel (UAS Traffic Management solutions), Aquiline Drones (OEM), Unifly (UAS traffic management technology), and uAvionix Corporation (UAS avionics), there is consensus that some form of remote identification for commercial UAS is both desirable and inevitable.

There is also general agreement that manned aircraft and helicopters need to play their part in detecting CUAS, and that the FAA’s vision of UAS Traffic Management (UTM) – one that is distinct from, but complementary to, the FAA's existing air traffic system – ¬can keep ATCs in the loop.

Phil Binks, Altitude Angel’s head of air traffic management said he is fine with the concept of extending an avionics mandate to commercially operated unmanned aircraft, as long as the same requirement is being met by manned aircraft as well.

“You may not know it, but not all aircraft are currently required to be fitted with transponders,” Binks said. “With electronic conspicuity installed on both commercial drones and manned aviation, combined with a platform which allows us to have a single-source-point-of-truth for the skies, we can begin to apply technologies which are able to keep manned and autonomous vehicles safely apart. Manned aviation pilots can be made aware of the presence of drones and drones can be given timely and appropriate instructions to avoid conflict.”

Meanwhile, Altitude Angel’s GuardianUTM O/S drone management platform can help ATCs manage drones in controlled airspace. It is already providing this capability for NATS, the air navigation service provider for the U.K. Through the NATS Airspace User Portal, U.K.-based commercial drone operators can request permission to fly airspace that is usually restricted, with help from GurdianUTM.

“GuardianUTM not only streamlines the process for drones to access restricted airspace, it can also provide conformance alert,” Binks said. “When a drone’s operation is no longer aligned to its flight plan, a controller can be alerted to the problem and an appropriate cause of action can be taken.”

Aquiline Drones’ Founder and CEO Barry Alexander is also amenable to the FAA requiring drones to carry not just remote ID avionics, but other technologies found on manned aircraft. He predicts that “commercial airliners will see and avoid commercially operated drones in the same manner as they currently see and avoid other manned aircraft; using transponders, ADS-B, radar,” or other methods of surveillance, according to Alexander.

Aquiline Drones’ UAS come with onboard obstacle detection, collision avoidance sensors and other technologies used by manned aircraft. Aquiline Drones

Until the airspace rules are finalized, Aquiline Drones is equipping its UAS with obstacle detection, collision avoidance sensors and similar technologies used in manned aircraft, allowing these drones to function in controlled airspace. In fact, all Aquiline Drones' managed aerial assets – both manned and unmanned– are equipped with ADS-B as a standard feature, even though this is not yet mandated and there has been no intent shown yet by the FAA to enact such a mandate,” Alexander said.

The company’s decision to feature ADS-B as a standard feature was driven by the desire to provide the highest level of safety possible, according to Alexander. He does see needs for other commercial UAS technologies as well.

“One critical need is to provide data connectivity for control and non-payload communication (CNPC), also known as command and control (C2) communication,” he added. “For medium and large UAVs, in the USA a standard has been adopted for CNPC, created by the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA). Aquiline is a member of RTCA and is staying abreast of all tech developments.”

Unifly, the Belgium-based startup that in 2019 partnered with Fortem Technologies, a Utah-based provider of artificial intelligence for airspace, isn’t just onboard with the FAA’s Remote ID requirement; it is ready to supply the equipment for the job. The company has released Unifly BLIP, which is a smartphone-sized drone tracking and e-Identification product that attaches to a drone top surface. Short for Broadcast Location & Identification Platform, BLIP is designed to integrate with UTM systems. It also aids UAS operators in tracking the precise locations of their drones when flying Beyond Visual Line of Sight missions.

Unifly’s BLIP is a smartphone-sized drone tracking and e-Identification device that attaches directly to the drone. Unifly

The BLIP drone solution is meant to address Remote ID, manned aircraft, and controlled airspace concerns.

“If the manned aircraft has a datalink to the UTM system, they have the information about the drones' location,” said Ellen Malfliet, Unifly’s Chief Marketing Officer. “However, collision avoidance is easier implemented by having the drone detect the helicopter or commercial aircraft using ADS-B.”

“We have built this technology,” she continued. “It is commercially available out of the box today.”

There’s just one problem with the ADS-B Out equipage approach proposed by Unifly and Aquiline Drones: under the FAA’s remote ID proposal, ADS-B is not permitted on unmanned systems as a remote ID mechanism.

“Should the FAA define performance requirements for the equipment that flies on commercial aircraft? Absolutely,” said Christian Ramsey, president of uAvionix Corporation. “Should unmanned aircraft have the same type of equipment that manned aircraft do in certain airspaces? Well, that certainly gets more complicated. The FAA’s proposed Remote ID prohibits the use of ADS-B or transponders on unmanned systems for Part 91 and Part 107, or operating as a Remote ID mechanism.”

Founded in 2015, uAvionix is developing certified and uncertified ADS-B and GPS solutions for general aviation, airport surface vehicles and commercially operated unmanned aircraft. Ramsey is supportive of the FAA’s push for remote ID, but questions how they want to achieve it.

“I agree ADS-B is not appropriate for remote identification, and the restriction is appropriate for Part 107. But for Part 91 operations I think the prohibition goes a bit too far,” he concluded. “At higher altitudes where Part 91 operations will typically take place, the airspace will include manned aircraft and larger UAS. In this airspace, ADS-B is useful as a Detect and Avoid (DAA) mechanism for safe separation between aircraft, and the spectrum congestion concerns aren't as significant given the lower volume of larger UAS operating at those altitudes. For these reasons, I think it is wrong to prohibit the use of transponders."

In February, FAA administrator Stephen Dickson said he hoped the agency would release a final ruling on remote ID implementation by the end of the year — an ambitious timetable for a complicated regulatory effort. With the coronavirus causing an unprecedented disruption in global aviation, it is unlikely the agency will meet that timetable.

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