« Continue Browsing

e-mail article Print     e-mail article E-mail

Kevin Bonham and Tu-Uyen Tran, Forum Communications Co., Published January 17 2012

UAS airspace challenged by pilots group

GRAND FORKS – A national aviation group is raising concerns about a proposed restricted airspace set aside for unmanned aircraft systems south of Devils Lake just as federal regulators are extending the public comment period by a month.

The Aircraft Operators and Pilots Association said in a Jan. 10 statement that the proposal “raises more questions than it answers, undermines safety, and would set a dangerous precedent in creating additional restricted airspace for use solely by UAS.”

Recently, the Federal Aviation Administration extended the deadline for public comments from Jan. 12 to Feb. 13.

AOPA, which says it represents more than 400,000 U.S. pilots and aviation enthusiasts, is urging its members to submit their comments.

North Dakota’s emerging UAS industry is pushing for quick approval of the restricted airspace. It would provide training space for remotely piloted aircraft assigned to Grand Forks Air Force Base, MQ-1 Predators and RQ-4 Global Hawks. U.S. Customs and Border Protection also has Predators stationed at the base.

The restricted airspace has practical applications to the civilian world, too, with the University of North Dakota already developing into a world leader in UAS research and education, establishing the first four-year UAS degree in the world.

The AOPA previously struck a less adversarial tone toward the proposal.

“The association advocates integrating UAS into the National Airspace System, not segregating them in special-use airspace,” the AOPA said in an October 2010 news release. “Achieving the goal will require further technological development of UAS to provide safe co-existence with manned aircraft by guaranteeing that UAS will perform in a predictable manner in the event of mechanical failure or communications loss.”

“We’re not there yet,” Heidi Williams, AOPA’s senior director of airspace and modernization, said at the time.

In the Jan. 10 statement, the group expressed the same concerns, but said it this way: “The proposal does nothing to explain how the UASs would be safely flown to and from the training areas from Grand Forks, and how pilots in the area would be informed of those transient operations.”

In fact, AOPA said it asked the FAA to extend the comment period.

“If we could do it without restricted airspace, we’d find a way,” said Al Palmer, director of the UND UAS Center of Excellence, a member of the North Dakota Airspace Integration Team and a retired National Guard brigadier general.

He served with Fargo’s 119th Wing, which now flies the Predators assigned to the base.

Integrating unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System is a process that takes time and compromise, said Palmer, who is also a founding member of the North Dakota Pilots Association.

“I can see both sides,” he said. “Nobody likes to lose access to airspace. When you look at general aviation and the pilots, nobody wants to give something up. You could have a very spirited debate on both sides. The FAA will make the decision. They’ll have the challenge of finding the common ground.”

The proposed restricted airspace is smaller than originally proposed. Back in 2010, the proposal included a second restricted airspace north of Devils Lake while the restricted airspace south of the lake covered a few more counties.

Today, the proposal includes airspace just above Camp Grafton South, a 9,300-acre National Guard weapons and maneuver training center, and Eddy and Foster counties. It’s about 40 miles from Grand Forks Air Force Base.

Trevor Woods, UAS lead instructor at UND said the airspace is layered like a cake.

A small area (listed as R-5402 on the accompanying map) is the bottom layer, starting from 500 feet to 10,000 feet. Airspace in the other portions of the rectangular map includes layers between 8,000 and 14,000 feet, with unmanned aircraft using only the top layers or tiers.

“It’s a small airspace,” Palmer said. “The military has done the best it can to minimize impact. At the end of the day, there will be compromise.”

Kevin Bonham and Tu-Uyen Tran write for the Grand Forks Herald.