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Should Drones Have Inspection & Maintenance Re

By Ron Oetjen Writer on July 20, 2017
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So, it day 2 of the “all things unmanned” expo, commonly referred to as Xponential 2017, in Dallas, TX and I had some great conversations with industry folks today. Moreover, I heard an announcement today that left me feeling encouraged about the FAA’s pace to “safely integrate UAS into the national airspace” as they would like to say. Today I heard that the FAA has granted approval for Beyond Visual Line of Sight operations, or BVLOS as industry insiders refer to it as, to the Grand Sky air park. This is a big step as the FAA has been resistant to relinquish its grip around BVLOS and autonomous flights which is what most commercial drone operators need as a game changer. Apparently, this air park is huge and ranges from just north of Fargo up towards the Canadian border. A good place to put a “proving ground” as it’s about as sparsely populated of an area as we have in the United States.

This is a big move by the FAA and a very good announcement for the industry. North Dakota is obviously exuberant about this announcement as witnessed by the poster they were displaying in front of every urinal in men’s room in the exhibit hall (see picture). I decided to go over the to “North Dakota Legendary” exhibit booth to learn more about their air park and to congratulate them on their news. I was greeted by a young gentleman in a tee shirt who told me more about the air park and the businesses that are moving to North Dakota due to the FAA BVLOS approval. I must say that he was excited and he was knowledgeable. If fact, he let the “cat out of the bag” on his feeling about how the FAA should treat the UAS operators and it led to a little debate.Drones in North Dakota

During our conversation, the young man asked me what I did and why I was at the show. I told him that I worked for an FAA Part 145 Repair Station and that we believe that we can add value to this market and are closely monitoring it. He went on to tell me that he wasn’t sure where a Repair Station would fit in because the platforms are so cheap that when you crash them, you just trash them. He went on to say that he didn’t think that there would be any need to test or inspect a Drone other than the pilot doing a self-check prior to flight. I kindly told him that can’t imagine the FAA allowing a commercial drone operator to fly in controlled airspace without 3rd party validation that the altitude reporting systems are operating properly at a minimum. With great confidence, he told me that when this drone market explodes the FAA will put drone people in place to be the regulators and not these manned aviation regulators.

I was challenged by these comments because in my heart I want the commercial drone market to explode. I want the regulators to get out of the way of the innovators, but as a pilot of a manned aircraft I don’t want to run into one of these unmanned systems while in flight. In our work in a repair station, we regularly have people come in for an inspection or certification and comment that everything is good and the aircraft will pass with no problem. Many times, we go back to them to tell them that their altimeter if off by 600 feet or their encoder is reporting the wrong altitude. They think everything is fine when they bring their aircraft in, but soon find out that their altitude reporting system isn’t functioning properly. Something they probably wouldn’t have learned had it not been for FAA regulations requiring the certification or a trip into controlled airspace where ATC tells them their altitude is incorrect. I’m just not sure that I would trust commercial drone operators to self-certify that the aircraft operates properly because that seems irresponsible.

This conversation was very productive. I was open to listening to his ideas and he was respectful of my comments. I left him with a question: What do you think is going to happen when a commercial drone operator doesn’t properly check his instrumentation prior to flight, thinks he is flying at 1000’ but is really flying at 1600’ and gets sucked into the engine of a Boeing 767 on approach into Orlando causing a major crash? Would that be good for the FAA, the Air Carriers, the passengers, or the UAS market? You might say that I have a dog in this hunt, but I just don’t see any good reason for commercial drone aircraft to be flying without 3rd party certification of the reporting systems and maintenance inspections. What do you think?

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