Submitted by Erik Bratton, Director of Safety, Hospital Wing

Drones are an increasingly popular way for hobbyists to fly. Smaller unmanned aerial systems (UAS), more commonly known as drones, are becoming more affordable by the day. They are more versatile than a standard remote control (RC) airplane or helicopter, can be equipped with very good imagery equipment, and have become easier to fly due to technology gains in the industry. They have a myriad of commercial applications as well, ranging from real estate photography, news gathering, engineering and mapping, law enforcement, aerial inspection, agriculture, and search and rescue. There is no doubt that both the commercial and recreational markets will continue to expand due to its usability.

As they expand, we will inevitably see an increase in the number of UAS sightings by aircraft. In 2016, 1762 were reported to the FAA. For the first quarter of CY 2017, 403 were reported. We are seeing an average of well over 100 reported sightings per month, and many believe the true number may be much higher. In the past 2 months in Memphis, Hospital Wing has experienced 2 near misses and 2 additional UAS sightings near our downtown helipad. DRONE is a word that scares a lot of aircrews because the size and color often make them extremely hard to spot while flying.

So why would we see such a rate of UAS sightings in areas where they are not supposed to operate? It may be due, in part, to the disparity in licensing and education requirements between the hobbyist and commercial UAS operator. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as of February 2017, there were a total of 851,169 small UAS (under 55 lbs.) registrations. Yet there were only 33,557 Part 107 licensed remote pilots. This means that less than 4% of UAS operators have taken and passed a basic knowledge test. This may be because there is no FAA UAS pilot licensing requirement for hobbyist pilots. This leaves a large gap, at least a perceived one, when it comes to basic aeronautic and safety knowledge.

There are basic safety rules that every operator must follow, listed on the Know Before You Fly website that was founded by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVS) and the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) in partnership with the FAA. Some of the recommendations are:

  • Contact airport and tower before flying within five miles of an airport or heliport;
  • Keep the UAS in eyesight always (line of sight rule);
  • Do not intentionally fly over unprotected persons or moving vehicles;
  • Fly no higher than 400 feet AGL; and
  • Fly only during daylight hours.

The most important rule is to yield right of way to all manned aircraft. The fact that the FAA is receiving over 100 UAS incursion reports per month may, in part, be due to a lack of knowledge of these basic safety rules.

There is also a misconception that UASs do not have to be registered based on the court ruling of Taylor v FAA (https://www.faa.gov/uas/getting_started/registration_deletion/). The ruling states, “Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 provides that the FAA may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft”. The court further ruled that all RC aircraft and UAS fall under the same category as a model aircraft and there could be no differentiation. Applying the criteria of the ruling and looking at Section 336, it states the FAA may not make any rule “regarding model aircraft if- (2) the aircraft is operated within a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of nationwide community-based organization.” The nationwide organization specifically mentioned by the FAA is the AMA. In the AMA’s National Model Aircraft Safety Code, it requires that “the aircraft is identified with the name and address or AMA number of the owner on the inside or affixed to the outside of the model aircraft” (https://www.modelaircraft.org/files/105.pdf). The reason this is important is, if a UAS is involved in an accident, there must be a way to hold the owner and/or operator accountable for their actions.

The FAA’s hands are tied by Taylor v FAA in multiple ways. The court ruled that registration of UASs “imposes new requirements – to register, to pay fees, to provide information, and to display information” on UAS hobbyists. This ruling would further prevent the FAA from ever imposing any educational requirements on the recreational UAS operator. The court stated that the only way to change any rule regarding recreational UAS would be by repeal or amendment of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. However, the act does leave the door open to local governments to promulgate community based safety standards for hobby aircraft.

For now, the path to educate and legislate recreational UAS and their operators must be created at the local level. Organizations with a vested interest must take the lead and garner support at the municipal or city level to ensure the safety of all operating aircraft.

The air ambulance industry needs to lead the charge to prevent an accident. We fly at lower altitudes and have a higher risk exposure to UAS due to the increasing affordability of these systems. We must be the agents of change, forming partnerships with local organizations that have the same goals.

These include local governments, law enforcement, news media, and commercial operators. Hospital Wing has been fortunate to be able to forge strategic partnerships with the local media, local and federal law enforcement, and the local representatives of the FAA. Together, we are working to find avenues to reach the recreational users in our area and educate them on the basic safety principles of aircraft operation, airspace, and communication.

There is a need for mandatory education and registration of UAS and their operators. The fact that 96% of registered UAS may have an operator with educational requirements makes that clear. When someone puts a vehicle in the air, they become a pilot and subject to the jurisdiction of the FAA. The FAA should be able to regulate this part of the industry closer, but right now, that would take an act of Congress.