Innovative Use of Cellular Network may greatly enhance UAS safety, but faces many Real Hurdles

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Tracking UASs, especially sUASs, poses to be a VERY difficult task for the FAA air traffic control, once it issues its final certification and operation rules. The complexity of NextGen will be multiplied exponentially with so many targets which operate in and on the periphery of the National Air Space. The below article describes how one entrepreneurial company is designing a system which would rely on cellular towers (see above map of their coverage according to the FCC) to track.

Airware was formed in 2011 to create an Aerial Information Platform for the development and safe operation of commercial drones. The company is working with NASA to design a system to track and even manage, for example, the 7,500 UASs that the FAA forecasts will be operating by 2018. One option is to develop an internet based bridge which will pick up signals through the cellular tower network and feed that information to an ATC system computer dedicated to these new vehicles. One of the goals for the project is to create a platform which will receive these inputs and advise UASs how to avoid proximate aircraft.

The first generation would provide the services and links to the system of an Automated Flight Service Station. The UAS user would send the intended flight to this node on the UAS ATC system. The same communication might also provide weather advisories, NOTAMs, advisories like obstructions in the area.

Further enhancements might incorporate commands which would compel the aircraft to land using preordained restrictions as the constraints. If “the Airware solution could provide the reliability needed to segregate the UAS traffic from general aviation and commercial flights” is a major question and if the answer is affirmative, the FAA would be ecstatic!

That’s all of the good news, but there are other considerations. A very substantial concern is whether and how a segment of ATC could be transferred to a third party, private entity? Could the FAA immediately alter the safety, operational and efficiency parameters of such a service? It is an important aspect of the current safety regime that when a pilot violates a ATC rule, the FAA gets the information from the FAA. That transmission is assured to be made expeditiously and the information is considered worthy of evidentiary respect; the “facts” produced by a private entity would have to create credibility and accuracy.

Perhaps of great significance to Airwave or a like UAS ATC provider, the liability issues would be enormous. The counsel for the plaintiffs I any aircraft accident normally names the FAA as a defendant. The damages which an UAS accident might face would be hard to estimate and maybe more difficult to get coverage.

These issues may be well beyond the range of normal private legal structures. If there is any potential for such a private UAS ATC provider, Congress would probably have to pass comprehensive legislation which would deal with the legislation transferring the ATC function, establishing the means for the FAA to control/regulate the UAS ATC provider, creating some protection for liability and probably a host of other of other provisions. The issue of privatization has befuddled Congress for year; the added complexity of this issue would further confuse the issue.

One of the technical hurdles which may deter the growth of this exploding industry is the need to establish a method to detect and avoid. Airwave may have found a path to that goal. As with many theoretical solution to a large problem, the practical hurdles may prohibit the direct path.

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