Since the early 1990s, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) have operated on a limited basis in the National Airspace System (NAS). Until recently, UAS mainly supported public operations, such as military and border security operations. The list of potential uses is now expanding rapidly to encompass a broad range of other activities, including aerial photography, surveying land and crops, communications and broadcasting, monitoring forest fires and environmental conditions, and protecting critical infrastructures.

Unmanned aircraft systems have significantly increased in number, technical complexity, and sophistication during recent years without having the same history of compliance and oversight as manned aviation. Unlike the manned aircraft industry, the UAS community does not have a set of standardized design specifications for basic UAS design that ensures safe and reliable operation. As a result, the UAS community often finds it difficult to apply existing FAA guidance. In some cases, interpretation of regulations and/or standards may be needed to address characteristics unique to UAS.

The FAA is collaborating with manufacturers, commercial vendors, industry trade associations, technical standards organizations, academic institutions, research and development centers, government agencies such as NASA, and other regulators to determine the best way to integrate UAS into the NAS without decreasing safety, negatively impacting current operators, or increasing the risk to airspace users or persons and property on the ground. Significant progress has been made toward UAS-NAS integration, with many challenges and opportunities ahead.

Manned vs. Unmanned Avionics and Control

Although aviation regulations have been developed generically for all aircraft, until recently these efforts were not done with UAS specifically in mind. This presents certain challenges because the underlying assumptions that existed during the previous efforts may not now fully accommodate UAS operations. As an example, current regulations address security requirements for cockpit doors. However, these same regulations lack a legal definition for what a “cockpit” is or where it is located. This presents a challenge for UAS considering that the cockpit or “control station” may be located in an office building, in a vehicle, or outside with no physical boundaries. Applying current cockpit door security regulations to UAS may require new rule-making, guidance, or a combination of both.

Existing standards ensure safe operation by pilots actually onboard the aircraft. These standards may not translate well to UAS designs where pilots are remotely located off the aircraft. Removing the pilot from the aircraft creates a series of performance considerations between manned and unmanned aircraft that need to be fully researched and understood to determine acceptability and potential impact on safe operations in the NAS. For example, the UAS pilot is not onboard the aircraft and does not have the same sensory and environmental cues as a manned aircraft pilot. Also, the UAS pilot must depend on a data link for control of the aircraft. This affects the aircraft’s response to air traffic control (ATC) instructions. The UAS present air traffic controllers with a different range of platform sizes and operational capabilities such as size, speed, altitude, and wake turbulence criteria.

Not a 747, But …

“Make no mistake: unmanned aircraft operators are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Registration gives us an opportunity to work with these users to operate their unmanned aircraft safely.”

When you fly a drone anywhere in the nation’s airspace, you become a pilot. A drone is an aircraft, so while the rules for drones may be different, you have the responsibility to operate it safely, just like a 747 pilot.

Effective December 21, 2015, anyone who owns a small unmanned aircraft of a certain weight must register with the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) registry (www.faa.gov/uas/registration ) before they fly outdoors. People who previously operated their UAS must register by February 19, 2016. If you don’t, you could face civil and criminal penalties.

For more information on UAS regulations, visit https://www.faa.gov/uas/ .