UAV aircraft and crowded civil air space: is it safe out there?

By John Keller
Editor in Chief

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) eventually will have to share the same civil air space with private and commercial aircraft. The potential of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is simply too big to consider otherwise. When this happens, as it inevitably will, I wonder how safe it will be to fly manned and unmanned aircraft closely together.

It's only a matter of time before the aerial unmanned vehicle takes its place in civilian air space in roles ranging from surveillance of terrorist and criminal activity, finding and fighting forest fires, search and rescue, and many other applications.

Sophisticated aerial unmanned vehicles are cheaper, smaller, and more efficient than their manned counterparts. One big and undeniable advantage of UAVs is the perception of safety; the uninhabited air vehicle does not put human pilots at risk. I was reminded of that aspect of air safety in August when a private fixed-wing airplane collided with a sightseeing helicopter over the Hudson River in New York City, killing all nine people aboard the two aircraft.

That area over the Hudson between Manhattan and New Jersey is one hair-raisingly crowded strip of air space, and it's a wonder we haven't seen more of those mid-airs before. The accident happened on 8 Aug. in clear, daylight, VFR conditions, when a Eurocopter AS 350 carrying tourists climbed into the air space over the river and hit a Piper Cherokee Six private plane from underneath that was flying southbound.

A Cherokee Six, also called a Piper PA-32, is a six-place propeller-driven private plane with a low-mounted wing, which restricts visibility below the aircraft. Evidently the helicopter climbed right into the underside of the Cherokee Six, knocked off one the Piper's wings, and sent both aircraft plummeting into the river.

I'm still a licensed private pilot, although I haven't been active for a couple of decades. When I was active, though I had some experience with the New York City air space, and believe me, it's a scary place. It involves overlapping controlled air space from three major commercial airports -- Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark -- with all of that commercial jetliner traffic climbing and descending in and out of those airports.

Think in three dimensions, and imagine the controlled air space over each of those airports as an upside-down layered wedding cake. The controlled air space down to the ground is the smallest, and each layer of controlled air space moving upward gets larger.

Now put those three upside-down wedding cakes closely together, just like the Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark airports. The only place those controlled air spaces don't touch -- where pilots can fly visual flight rules without being in radio contact with air traffic control -- is over the river, from the river's surface to an altitude of 1,100 feet, and less than a mile wide from side to side. Fly higher and you're likely to have a conflict with a Boeing 747.

The Hudson VFR Corridor, as it's known, is a popular route for light aircraft not only because it has no requirement to get involved with air traffic control, but also because it's exciting and scenic. You can get a great view of the Statue of Liberty, and you're flying below the tops of New York's tallest skyscrapers. To fly through there, pilots are only asked to announce their positions and direction of travel on a radio frequency of 123.05 MHz. That frequency, by the way, is just as crowded as the air space, so pilots have to speak quickly and struggle to get their messages heard.

While in the Hudson VFR Corridor, it is up to each pilot to see and avoid other aircraft. Airplanes are all over the place, helicopters pop up quickly from pads in Manhattan and New Jersey. Couple that with sunlight glinting off office building windows and the river's surface, and you can see how distracting it can be. I'm amazed that mid-air collisions happen so rarely.

Now think about adding UAVs to the mix.

Just this week, the FAA and GE Aerospace inked an agreement to study how to enable manned and unmanned aircraft to share commercial airspace. I'm not sure if unmanned aircraft operating in civil air space would be safer or more dangerous than the situation is today, but it's going to take some serious work and creative thinking to get manned and unmanned aircraft to share the same air space safely.

Let us all hope that GE Aerospace and the FAA take their time and get this job right.

Easily post a comment below using your Linkedin, Twitter, Google or Facebook account.


Military & Aerospace Photos

Most Popular Articles

Related Products

General Micro "Horizon" C299

The C299 Horizon is a third generation, 6U cPCI SBC module based on GMS’ upgradable CPU technolog...

Rugged Mobile Communications Server

Advanced communications server designed to be deployed in environments where it needs to meet cer...

API DC Link Power Film Capacitors

High reliability DC link capacitors for power inverter applications which require superior life e...

VPX3-453 3U VPX Virtex-6/8640D Digital Signal Processor

The Curtiss-Wright VPX3-453 is a high performance 3U VPX DSP and FPGA processor card that combine...

UAS, UAV and Ground Based Robot Antennas

Cobham Antenna Systems have designed and developed a range of antennas for use on UAV, UAS and gr...

Low size, weight, and power (low SWaP) stabilized imaging systems for small manned and unmanned systems Alticam 09MWIR2

Designed for small unmanned aircraft systems. Gyro-stabilized gimbal system featuring mid-wave in...

Electronic Warfare VPX Products

The VPX product line includes three products: Modular Quad IF Up and Down Converter, Modular Dire...

Interpoint™ MTR Series™ 50 Volt

The MTR Series™ MTR 50, 28 volt dc-dc converter offers up to 30 watts of output power from single...

Interpoint™ MFP Series™ Down-Leaded Point of Load

The new down-leaded version of its Interpoint™ MFP Series Point of Load (POL) converters are avai...

DIGITAL TRANSCEIVER MODULES

DTM-Data link modules ranges of products are very compact and plug in solutions for unmanned air ...

Related Companies

General Micro Systems Inc

Since 1979, General Micro Systems has been providing the most diverse line of single-board computers in the industry....

Elma Electronic Inc

Who we are...   About Elma Electronic Systems   The Systems division of Elma Electronic Inc. supplies the

API Technologies Corp

Who We Are API Technologies is a dominant technology provider of RF/microwave, microelectronics, and security technol...

Extreme Engineering Solutions Inc (X-ES)

 Extreme Engineering Solutions, Inc. (X-ES) is a leader in the design, manufacture, and support of standard and ...

Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions

About Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions (CWCDS) is a long establish...

Crane Aerospace & Electronics

When failure is NOT an option...rely on Crane Aerospace & Electronics. We supply high-density, high-reliability c...

Delta Digital Video

Designs and manufactures video compression and scan conversion products for aerospace applications. Develops standard...

GE Intelligent Platforms

Provides embedded computing solutions. Products include single-board computers, networking products, avionics interfa...

Advanced Microwave Products

Designs and manufactures microwave transmitters and receivers for military, UVS, UAV, UGV, and surveillance applicati...

UAVDirect

UAVDirect is a provider of unmanned aerial vehicles specifically designed for aerial photography, aerial cinematograp...
Wire News provided by   

social activity

Webcasts

Meeting the Gen3 backplane challenge with OpenVPX and COTS

Tight Pentagon budgets mean military systems must stay in the field for longer than ever before. This doesn't mean obsolete technology, however. Today's military electronics are being upgraded constantly, an...
Sponsored by:

Digital signal processing for signals intelligence and electronic warfare

Military & Aerospace Electronics presents an expert Webcast on the design considerations for blending general-purposes processors (GPUs), general-purpose graphics processors (GPGPUs), field-programmable ...
Sponsored by:

Design Strategy Considerations for DO-178C Certified Multi-core Systems

Join Wind River to learn how system architecture and design choices can minimize your DO-178C certification challenges.

Sponsored by:

All Access Sponsors

View the 2014 Buyer's Guide Now!


Mil & Aero Magazine

October 2014
Volume 25, Issue 10
file

Download Our Apps



iPhone

iPad

Android

Follow Us On...



Newsletters

Military & Aerospace Electronics

Weekly newsletter covering technical content, breaking news and product information
SUBSCRIBE

Defense Executive

Monthly newsletter covering business news and strategic insights for executive managers
SUBSCRIBE

Electronic Warfare

Quarterly newsletter covering technologies and applications in electronic warfare, cyber warfare, optical warfare, and spectrum warfare.
SUBSCRIBE

Embedded Computing Report

Monthly newsletter covering news on embedded computing in aerospace, defense and industrial-rugged applications
SUBSCRIBE

Unmanned Vehicles

Monthly newsletter covering news updates for designers of unmanned vehicles
SUBSCRIBE