MCAS And The 737: When Small Changes Have Huge Consequences

When the first 737 MAX entered service in May of 2017, it was considered a major milestone for Boeing. For nearly a decade, the aerospace giant had been working on a more fuel efficient iteration of the classic 737 that first took to the skies in 1967. Powered by cutting-edge CFM International LEAP engines, and sporting modern aerodynamic improvements such as unique split wingtips, Boeing built the new 737 to have an operating cost that was competitive with the latest designs from Airbus. With over 5,000 orders placed between the different 737 MAX variants, the aircraft was an instant success.

But now, in response to a pair of accidents which claimed 346 lives, the entire Boeing 737 MAX global fleet is grounded. While the investigations into these tragedies are still ongoing, the preliminary findings are too similar to ignore. In both cases, it appears the aircraft put itself into a dive despite the efforts of the crew to maintain altitude. While the Federal Aviation Administration initially hesitated to suspend operations of the Boeing 737 MAX, they eventually agreed with government regulatory bodies all over the world to call for a temporary ban on operating the planes until the cause of these accidents can be identified and resolved.

For their part, Boeing maintains their aircraft is safe. They say that grounding the fleet was done out of an “abundance of caution”, rather than in direct response to a particular deficiency of the aircraft:

Boeing continues to have full confidence in the safety of the 737 MAX.  However, after consultation with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and aviation authorities and its customers around the world, Boeing has determined — out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public of the aircraft’s safety — to recommend to the FAA the temporary suspension of operations of the entire global fleet of 371 737 MAX aircraft.

Until both accident investigations are completed, nobody can say with complete certainty what caused the loss of the aircraft and their passengers. But with the available information about what changes were made during the 737 redesign, along with Boeing’s own recommendations to operators, industry insiders have started to point towards a fault in the plane’s new Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) as a likely culprit in both accidents.

Despite the billions of dollars spent developing these incredibly complex aircraft, and the exceptionally stringent standards their operation is held to, there’s now a strong indication that the Boeing 737 MAX could be plagued with two common issues that we’ve likely all experienced in the past: a software glitch and poor documentation.

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The FAA Mandates External Registration Markings For Drones

Drone fliers in the USA must soon display their registration markings on the exterior of their craft, rather than as was previously acceptable, in accessible interior compartments. This important but relatively minor regulation change has been announced by the FAA in response to concerns that malicious operators could booby-trap a craft to catch investigators as they opened it in search of a registration. The new ruling is effective from February 25th, though they are inviting public comment on it.

As airspace regulators and fliers across the world traverse the tricky process of establishing a safe and effective framework for multirotors and similar craft we’ve seen a variety of approaches to their regulation, and while sometimes they haven’t made complete sense and have even been struck down in the courts, the FAA’s reaction has been more carefully considered than that in some other jurisdictions. Rule changes such as this one will always have their detractors, but as an extension of a pre-existing set of regulations it is not an unreasonable one.

It seems inevitable that regulation of multirotor flight will be a continuing process, but solace can be taken at the lower end of the range. A common theme across the world seems to be a weight limit of 250 g for otherwise unrestricted and unregistered craft, and the prospects for development in this weight category in response to regulation are exciting. If a smaller craft can do everything our 2 kg machines used to do but without the burden of regulation, we’ll take that.

FAA Proposes Refined Drone Regulations

The wheels of government move slowly, far slower than the pace at which modern technology is evolving. So it’s not uncommon for laws and regulations to significantly lag behind the technology they’re aimed at reigning in. This can lead to something of a “Wild West” situation, which could either be seen as a good or bad thing depending on what side of the fence you’re on.

In the United States, it’s fair to say that we’ve officially moved past the “Wild West” stage when it comes to drone regulations. Which is not to say that remotely controlled (RC) aircraft were unregulated previously, but that the rules which governed them simply couldn’t keep up with the rapid evolution of the technology we’ve seen over the last few years. The previous FAA regulations for remotely operated aircraft were written in an era where RC flights were lower and slower, and long before remote video technology moved the operator out of the line of sight of their craft.

To address the spike in not only the capability of RC aircraft but their popularity, the Federal Aviation Administration was finally given the authority to oversee what are officially known as Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) with the repeal of Section 336 in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018. Section 336, known as the “Special Rule for Model Aircraft” was previously put in place to ensure the FAA’s authority was limited to “real” aircraft, and that small hobby RC aircraft would not be subject to the same scrutiny as their full-size counterparts. With Section 336 gone, one could interpret the new FAA directives as holding manned and unmanned aircraft and their operators to the same standards; an unreasonable position that many in the hobby strongly rejected.

At the time, the FAA argued that the repealing Section 336 would allow them to create new UAS regulations from a position of strength. In other words, start with harsh limits and regulations, and begin to whittle them down until a balance is found that everyone is happy with. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao has revealed the first of these refined rules are being worked on, and while they aren’t yet official, it seems like the FAA is keeping to their word of trying to find a reasonable middle ground for hobby fliers.

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Will Drones And Planes Be Treated As Equals By FAA?

Soon, perhaps even by the time you read this, the rules for flying remote-controlled aircraft in the United States will be very different. The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) is pushing hard to repeal Section 336, which states that small remote-controlled aircraft as used for hobby and educational purposes aren’t under FAA jurisdiction. Despite assurances that the FAA will work towards implementing waivers for hobbyists, critics worry that in the worst case the repeal of Section 336 might mean that remote control pilots and their craft may be held to the same standards as their human-carrying counterparts.

Section 336 has already been used to shoot down the FAA’s ill-conceived attempt to get RC pilots to register themselves and their craft, so it’s little surprise they’re eager to get rid of it. But they aren’t alone. The Commercial Drone Alliance, a non-profit association dedicated to supporting enterprise use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), expressed their support for repealing Section 336 in a June press release:

Basic ‘rules of the road’ are needed to manage all this new air traffic. That is why the Commercial Drone Alliance is today calling on Congress to repeal Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, and include new language in the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act to enable the FAA to regulate UAS and the National Airspace in a common sense way.

With both the industry and the FAA both pushing lawmakers to revamp the rules governing small remote-controlled aircraft, things aren’t looking good for the hobbyists who operate them. It seems likely those among us with a penchant for airborne hacking will be forced to fall in line. But what happens then?

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Pushing Tin Remotely: The Start Of Flight Control In The Cloud

In a 1999 movie (Pushing Tin), a flight controller is a passenger on a plane and tells the flight attendant that he needs to speak to the person controlling the plane. The flight attendant tells him the pilot is very busy to which the controller responds, “…you really think the pilot is controlling this plane? That would really scare me.” We wonder what that fictional character would think flying into Loveland Colorado. Their Colorado Remote Tower Project. While there’s still a human flight controller, they aren’t physically located at the airport and rely on remote cameras and radar so the controller can be located elsewhere.

The subject airport is the Northern Colorado Regional Airport and is the state’s busiest airport that has no tower. While the concept — generically known as Remote and Virtual Tower or RVT — dates back to 2002, its adoption is only now starting to pick up steam. An airport in Sweden was the first to go live for normal use in April of 2015, but the Colorado installation is the first approved in the United States. If the official site is a little too dry for you, there’s a CBS report with a video that gives you a quick overview of what’s happening. Or dive in with the demonstration video you can see below.

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FAA’s Drone Registration System Struck Down For Hobbyists

The US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has struck down a rule requiring recreational drone users and model aircraft pilots to register their drones with the FAA.

This began when [John Taylor], an RC hobbyist and attorney, filed suit against the FAA questioning the legitimacy of the FAA’s drone registration program. This drone registration began early last year, with the FAA requiring nearly all drones and model aircraft to be registered in a new online system. This registration system caused much consternation; the FAA Modernization And Reform Act of 2012 states, ““…Federal Aviation Administration may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft…”, defining model aircraft as any unmanned aircraft flown within visual line of sight for hobby or recreational purposes. Despite this mandate from Congress, the FAA saw fit to require registration for every model aircraft weighing between 0.55 and 55 pounds, regardless of the purpose of its flight.

In our coverage of the FAA’s drone registration program, we couldn’t make heads or tails of the reasons behind this regulation. In addition to the questionable legality of this regulation, there are questions over the FAA’s mandate to regulate anything flying under the 400 foot ceiling cited in the FAA’s rules. The question of safety is also open — a 2 kg drone is likely to cause injury to a passenger on a commercial flight only once every 187 million years of operation. In short, the FAA might not have the mandate of managing the air traffic, certification, and safety of the nation’s airspace when it comes to model aircraft.

While the Circuit court struck down the rule for registration concerning model aircraft, this still only applies to small (under 55 pounds) planes and quads flown within line of sight. Commercial drone operators still fall under the purview of the FAA, and for them the drone registration system will stand.

Don’t Like The FAA’s Drone Registration? Sue Them!

When the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began requiring registration of quadcopters (“drones”) in the US, it took a number of hobbyists by surprise. After all, the FAA regulates real 747s, not model airplanes. [John Taylor], an RC hobbyist, has done what you do when faced with a law that you believe is unjust: he’s filed a lawsuit in the DC District Court, claiming that the FAA has overstepped their mandate.

Which one is the "aircraft"?
Which one is the “aircraft”?

The lawsuit will hinge (as legal battles often do) on the interpretation of words. The FAA’s interpretation of quadcopters to be “aircraft” rather than toys is at the center of the dispute. Putting hobbyists into a catch-22, the FAA also requires recreational RC pilots to stay under a height of 400 feet, while requiring “aircraft” to stay above 500 feet except for emergencies, take-off, or landing. Which do they mean?

The editorial staff at Hackaday is divided about whether the FAA ruling makes no sense at all or is simply making hobbyists “sign their EULA“. This writer has spent enough time inside the Beltway to know an expanse of a mandate when he sees it, and no matter which body of the US government is to blame, regulating toy planes and helicopters as if they were commercial aircraft is an over-reach. Even if the intentions are benign, it’s a poorly thought-out ruling and should be revisited.

If you agree, you now have the chance to put your money where your mouth is. The DC Area Drone User Group is putting together a legal defense fund to push [Taylor]’s case. Nobody would be cynical enough to suggest that one can buy the legal system in the US, but, paraphrasing Diamond Dave, it sure as heck can buy a good enough lawyer to get the law changed.