Tuesday, September 25th, 2012 10:24 am GMT -7 Tuesday, September 25th, 2012 10:24 am GMT -7Tuesday, September 25th, 2012 10:24 am GMT -7
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Are we on track to start opening the skies to civilian UAVs by December 2015? Maybe, maybe not.





Two very recent reports released by the Federal government shed light on the current status of the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) integration into the national airspace over the United States.

I have provided links to these documents at the end of this article. A summary of their contents follows. The documents are not terribly long and are very legible. If you have any kind of serious interest in UAV technology, I strongly recommend at least reading this entire article.

I am also including a link to the AUVSI (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International) Code of Conduct, which is playing a key role in the integration discussions.

The preferred terms in use by the Federal government are drone and UAS (unmanned aircraft system). I have changed these terms to a uniform use of the word UAV.


The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress. Often called the “congressional watchdog,” GAO investigates how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars.


The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is entrusted for ensuring the safety of the airspace over the United States. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, signed into law a few months ago, laid out the roadmap for the integration of civilian UAVs into the national airspace.

The plan calls for the integration to begin before the end of 2015. Full integration is expected to take five years. In other words, even if the plan stays on schedule, do not expect full access to the airspace for close to ten years from now.

Status Report

GAO reported in 2008 that UAVs could not meet the aviation safety requirements developed for manned aircraft and that this posed several obstacles to safe and routine operation in the national airspace system. These obstacles still exist and include the inability for UAVs to sense and avoid other aircraft and airborne objects in a manner similar to manned aircraft; vulnerabilities in the command and control of UAVs operations; the lack of technological and operational standards needed to guide safe and consistent performance of UAVs; and final regulations to accelerate the safe integration of UAVs into the national airspace system.

The FAA has missed one deadline in its UAV integration plan and could miss others. According to FAA, its draft Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) that would define and govern how small UAVs (55 pounds or less) would potentially operate in the national airspace system will be issued at the end of 2012.

Integration Issues

Key challenges to UAV integration in domestic airspace include safety concerns, potential security risks, and concerns regarding airspace restrictions and possible disruptions to manned flight operations.

To meet safety objectives, UAVs will require technology and standard procedures for sensing and avoiding other air traffic under all possible scenarios, including lost communications.

The GAO concluded that no suitable technology is currently available to provide unmanned aircraft, particularly small UAVs, with the detect, sense, and avoid requirements needed to safely operate within the national airspace system. FAA is currently evaluating options for routinely allowing small unmanned aircraft to use line-of-sight as an acceptable means to detect and avoid manned aircraft under a regulatory regime for small UAVs.

Standards that will be published in 2014, along with findings from unmanned aircraft integration testing, will likely form the basis of FAA regulations and guidance regarding sense and avoid technologies and UAV operating procedures.

To minimize the likelihood of a crash when communications, command, and control linkages between the vehicle and the ground control station are disrupted, UAVs may need the ability to autonomously return to base.

The accident rate for unmanned aircraft is far above that of manned aircraft. To mitigate flight risks, The FAA may put in place structured training and certification requirements for unmanned aircraft pilots.

One particularly important human factors consideration for regulators is a determination regarding training standards and minimum qualification requirements for personnel involved in flight operations. One approach would be for FAA to develop basic training and certification standards for operators of small UAVs, while requiring more elaborate training and certification requirements for personnel seeking to operate or maintain large, complex unmanned aircraft systems.

The GAO noted that the lack of dedicated radio frequency spectrum for UAV operations raises the risk of lost communications links due to either unintentional or intentional signal interference. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is the United Nations agency responsible for global information and communications technologies. In December 2009 the ITU concluded that unmanned aircraft operations will require dedicated radio frequency spectrum for air traffic control, vehicle command and control, and sense and avoid capabilities.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) represents more than 400,000 general aviation pilots and aviation enthusiasts across the United States. It has asserted that unmanned aircraft operations should not have a negative impact on general aviation operations and should not require special airspace designations, such as restricted airspace, for their operation.

Privacy Concerns

While unmanned aircraft may carry a wide variety of sensor payloads for diverse applications, cameras and imaging sensors have raised particular concerns among privacy advocates who fear that widespread civilian unmanned aircraft operations could lead to abuses in monitoring, tracking, and surveilling people throughout the courses of their daily lives.

Concerns have been raised regarding the commercial use of drones, including their potential use by marketing firms, private investigators, and paparazzi.

In general, navigable airspace for full-size aircraft is considered to be 500 feet above ground level and higher, except in congested areas where the minimum safe altitude rises to 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a 2,000-foot radius of the aircraft’s position at any given time.

The Federal government has exclusive sovereignty of domestic airspace, thus significantly limiting state and local governments from promulgating laws, regulations, or ordinances affecting access to the national airspace system. Landowner rights with regard to the navigable airspace above private property are similarly restricted.

However, nuisance suits pertaining to aviation noise have allowed recovery for annoyance, inconvenience, discomfort, and mental and emotional distress, as well as for property damage. History suggests that the introduction of civilian drones in the national airspace system is likely to be a highly contentious matter.

GAO UAV Integration Progress Report (pdf)

CRS UAV Integration Backgrounder (pdf)

AUVSI Code of Conduct (pdf)

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