They're heeeere ...
As you may recall, the FAA reauthorizing legislation passed last year included new responsibility to regulate unpiloted aerial vehicles, UAVs, commonly called drones. As I discussed in this space in May 2012, the new law requires the FAA "to develop a regulatory framework for larger craft to mix and mingle in the national airspace with the kinds of machines you and I fly. By September 30, 2015, that new set of regulations must be in place, according to Congress, and must allow private operation of UAVs."
But UAVs already are being operated in the national airspace. And they're already causing problems. A recent search of NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) online database for the string "uav" returns 24 reported events. Here are three of them.
In August 2012, over Minnesota, a UAV descended from its assigned altitude, FL350, without clearance. A controller witnessed the deviation and reported: "While working an adjacent sector I witnessed a UAV deviate from his assigned altitude. ... The aircraft descended out of FL350 to FL300 without a clearance. When questioned by the controller, the remote pilot stated that he could not maintain FL350 so he descended. ... I was informed by the controller and the FLM that they were not going to file any paperwork on the event."
Last May, a Cirrus SR22 pilot reported the following: "My passengers and I noticed an oblong-shaped UAV (approximately 2 to 3 feet long with a long antenna) passing us in the opposite direction within 100 feet of our left wing on the 45 to Runway 15 at RMN (the Stafford (Va.) Regional Airport, just outside Washington, D.C.). The object did not show up on my TCAS system as a threat. These vehicles need to show up in the cockpit as a threat or stay within the MOAs."
Last March, a UAV pilot reported: "At a point in the mission the UAV descended to FL190 without an ATC clearance. ... As we were then unable to verify the aircraft's position or obtain critical flight information, the command link with the vehicle was disabled, releasing it on its Emergency Mission profile in accordance with the approved emergency checklist. The vehicle then began squawking 7600 and entered autonomous flight preceding direct to the assigned emergency mission loiter point and descended to a preprogrammed altitude of FL190."
Just to clarify, these three ASRS reports involving errant UAVs in U.S. airspace within the last year. Other reports on UAVs in the ASRS database go back at least as far as 2008. It's hard to determine from the ASRS data, but it appears these are government-operated craft. More UAVs in private and commercial hands, which cannot be expected to operate them under the same degree of control, means more events.