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2016 Year in review: Aircraft and Atmospheric Systems

FAA finalizes rules for small drones


The Aircraft Operations Technical Committee promotes safe and efficient flights in the airspace system by encouraging information-sharing among the community and government agencies.

Data made available this year showed U.S. domestic passenger boarding increased by 5 percent from 2014 to 2015. Load factors continued to hover around 83 percent, with domestic flights being slightly higher on average. Passengers seemed less unhappy with airlines: Complaints to the Department of Transportation Aviation Consumer Protection Division for the first six months of 2016 were 12.2 percent lower than the same period in 2015. Cancellations were at 1 to 2 percent of flights, and year-on-year on-time arrivals are slowly improving. Weather continues to be the largest reported cause of delays.

Airline accidents continue to trend downward in terms of 10-year moving average. In 2015, there were 560 fatalities across 16 accidents worldwide, and through Sept. 1, 2016, there had been 182 fatalities from 10 accidents. Aircraft continue to experience laser strikes that distract pilots and potentially cause eye injury. In the U.S., incidents reported to the FAA in 2015 almost doubled compared to 2014 to over 7,700, and 2016 is on pace to exceed 2015 values.

In July, the FAA finalized the first operational rule for routine commercial use of small unmanned aircraft systems, opening pathways toward fully integrating drones into the nation’s airspace. The rule provides safety regulations for small unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds (about 25 kilograms) that are conducting non-hobbyist operations.

The FAA has also implemented all 24 of the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B, en-route baseline radio stations in the continental U.S. and Alaska and is on track with terminal area and surface installations. Because the 2020 ADS-B “Out” mandate is targeting more than 16,000 aircraft to be equipped in the next four years, there is concern about whether the industry can meet a last-minute avionics demand.

In July, the FAA awarded a $344 million contract to Lockheed Martin to develop the Terminal Flight Data Manager, with initial operating capability expected around 2020. TFDM will provide capabilities to allow controllers to manage flights on the airport surface and terminal area and allow future integration with other FAA automation systems.

Flight operations research continues to be strong, especially trajectory-based operations and the integration of drones into the National Airspace System. In 2015, more than 1,000 people from industry, academia and government attended the inaugural Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management Convention at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. Both Google and Amazon, for the first time publicly, presented their concepts and plans on future operations. The 2016 convention was scheduled to take place in Syracuse, New York, in November.

NASA transferred the Terminal Sequencing and Spacing software to the FAA in July. TSAS provides suggested speeds controllers should assign to aircraft as they follow fuel-efficient, continuous-descent arrival procedures and enables routine use of performance-based navigation procedures, resulting in fewer course and altitude changes while also reducing the frequency of communications. The FAA is looking to implement these tools operationally within the next five years.

The NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate has developed roadmaps for six strategic thrusts defined in its strategic implementation plan, released in 2015. Three of the six thrusts focus on advancing aviation operations: Strategic Thrust 1: Safe, Efficient Growth in Global Operations; Strategic Thrust 5: Real-Time System-Wide Safety Assurance; and Strategic Thrust 6: Assured Autonomy for Aviation Transformation. The road maps identify research needs and potential NASA activities to achieve advances in operations and enabling technology over this period.

Finally, the growing awareness in the aviation community of the obstacles presented by complex and integrated software is resulting in more research into developing alternate certification methodologies and tools to ensure validated safety claims. Efforts to coordinate this work among distinct organizations have started and continue to grow. ★

Contributor: Tom Reynolds

FAA finalizes rules for small drones

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