As closely observed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Remotely-piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), commonly known as drones, are increasingly being used for commercial operations and recreational purposes. This, IATA says, has coincided with an exponential increase in reports of RPA operating dangerously close to manned aircraft and airports.

IATA explains that owing to the growth of both commercial and recreational markets, RPA manufacturers and operators are seeking greater access to airspace, including that in which commercial aircraft are operating. IATA observes that flying a drone in the close vicinity of an airport or an aircraft can pose a serious risk to the safety of those on board the aircraft, adding that in the event of a collision or near-collision between the drone and the aircraft, the resulting accident could cause loss of life. Hence, there is need for world aviation regulators to take a unified stand on the appropriate control measures for drone operators.

ICAO's UTM Systems

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) recently disclosed, at the AUVSI "Xponential 2017" Conference in Dallas, its intention to develop a common global framework for traffic systems for drones, known in technical terms as UTM systems (Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management). ICAO notes that this initiative is part of the work programme that has been assigned to ICAO by its 191 member States.

Succinctly, UTM systems are a tool for managing low altitude airspace, and they include the registration and identification of drones. ICAO reveals that their creation has already been proposed by many ICAO Member States.

"Today, we are issuing a Request for Information on what we believe are the top priorities that must be addressed by States, industry and academia in order to develop safe and efficient UTM systems," says Leslie Cary, ICAO's Remotely Piloted Aviation Systems (RPAS) Programme Manager. "This will allow further developments to focus on better defined issues, whether technical, operational or legal. It will also ensure Safety continues to remain the driving factor. ICAO is the natural agency to be gathering together the best and brightest from governments and industry to define the problem so that global solutions can be proposed, debated and agreed."


According to ICAO, its initial foray into the subject of drones led States and international organizations to call for an expanded ICAO work programme to shape the framework of global regulations and guidance related to a much broader range of drone operations than had previously been considered within its remit. This request was based on three factors: the need to maintain the safety for manned aircraft; the desire to harmonize domestic UAS regulations; and the desire to ensure that the best options for UAS operations were being considered and recommended.

"Today we're seeing many new proposals and innovations emerging in terms of both aircraft and operations at low altitudes, including drones and personal flight vehicles. It's in everyone's interest to determine sooner rather than later how and where they can safely operate, so as to minimize all related noise and privacy concerns," notes Cary. "The sooner this framework is agreed upon globally, the sooner industry will be able to align their developing UAS businesses within harmonized UTM systems."


ICAO reveals that it has been actively engaged in the field of RPAS and UAS for almost a decade now. "States and international organizations, in response to an increasing number of potential and reported encounters between manned aircraft and drones, had requested that ICAO assist with provisions to enhance protections for manned flights. Soon after, we formed a UAS Advisory Group composed of a diverse set of experts, including industry, international organizations and State regulators," Cary explains.

ICAO discloses further that this led to the production of an online toolkit to provide States, operators and remote pilots with best practices and regulatory guidance and the publication of an RPAS Manual containing extensive guidance material for States and other aviation stakeholders, adding that ICAO will soon be releasing a Concept of Operations (CONOPS) to inform the global aviation community of its vision for RPAS regulation, and the UN agency is currently developing the legal framework for the international operation of certificated, instrument flight rules (IFR)-capable RPAS.

Pilots React

Part of the positions put forward by the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations (IFALPA) on drones is that before qualifying certain small and mid-sized UA (Unmanned Aircraft), as a low risk operation, an approved, full and transparent risk assessment should be completed. This would allow identification of all the risks, including collision with manned aviation, and its possible impact. Operation should only be allowed after all threats have been properly mitigated to an acceptable level, it states.

The United States Initiative

The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) agrees that drones that enter the airspace around airports can pose serious safety threats. Hence, the FAA is coordinating with government and industry partners to evaluate technologies that could be used to detect drones in and around airports. The US government agency explains that the effort complies with congressional language directing the FAA to evaluate UAS detection systems at airports and other critical infrastructure sites.

Ultimately, it is undoubted that unifying rules and regulations governing the operation of remotely piloted aircraft would make the airspace safer globally, for air travelers, as well as forestall security threats at airports that may arise from the use of unidentified drones by unauthorized persons.

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