Regulatory Brief: Unmanned Aircraft Systems

Regulatory Brief: Unmanned Aircraft Systems


On May 9, 2007, AOPA told the FAA that temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) are not the answer to allow integration of unmanned aircraft system (UAS) operations into the National Airspace System. Instead, a chase-plane should be used instead of TFRs for all UAS operations below 18,000 feet in civil airspace.

On February 13, 2007, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a Notice of Policy on Unmanned Aircraft in the National Airspace System (NAS). The policy document says that no person may operate a UAS in the National Airspace System without specific authority. Further, the document acknowledges that new regulatory standards need to be developed. In formal comments to the policy, AOPA told the FAA that while it’s a good first step, the goal must be the expeditious development of regulations for unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operations. AOPA has maintained that certification of UASs is important to ensure safety and make sure UAS operations don’t result in more flight restrictions.

The issue

Unmanned aircraft (UA) operate without an on-board pilot or crew. UAs can either be remotely controlled from the ground by an operator or preprogrammed to conduct the entire flight without intervention. In addition to the UA, other components, such as a control facility, data links, and any other apparatus, all combine to create an unmanned aircraft system (UAS).

At issue is the fact that there is no Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification or regulatory standards for operating UAs in the National Airspace System. Instead, the FAA issues certificates of authorization (COA) for each and every UA operation. The COA establishes limitations and requirements intended to prevent accidents between UA and piloted aircraft. However, it is AOPA’s assertion that UAs need to meet the same certification and operational standards as piloted aircraft, and they need to fit into the existing National Airspace System without any negative impact on general aviation operations.

In addition to a growing interest in UAS use by commercial companies, they are the technology of choice in numerous government agencies and departments. They are being used more frequently in America’s war against terror, both at home and abroad. The departments of Defense and Homeland Security are developing plans to use UAs domestically. AOPA is concerned that unless these aircraft meet certification standards established by the FAA, large airspace restrictions may be necessary to segregate piloted aircraft from UAs.

The importance to our members

AOPA members continue to express concerns over collision hazards. UAs currently lack the necessary technologies to safely operate in a “see and avoid” environment. In order to safely operate in the airspace system without segregation and without any negative impact on general aviation, the UAs need to be certified and operated like piloted aircraft. While AOPA supports UAS data gathering, it must be done in a way that does not adversely affect the safety or operations in the National Airspace System.


Twenty years ago, UAs were used by the military first as target drones for fighter aircraft, and more recently as reconnaissance platforms. Years ago, the FAA intentionally crashed a remotely piloted transport category aircraft to demonstrate a new fuel that was supposed to be less flammable. The remotely piloted aircraft worked, but the fire retardant fuel did not. Over the past several years, new technology development has led to the introduction of UAs used by the military in Afghanistan and Iraq.

AOPA’s position

Unmanned aircraft and their operation should be certified to the same level of safety as piloted aircraft. Their operation in the National Airspace System should not have a negative impact on general aviation operations and should not require specially designated airspace for their operation.


Unmanned aircraft come in all shapes and sizes. They can weigh as little as four pounds or as much as 100,000 pounds. Some fly no higher than rooftops, while others fly well above piloted aircraft altitudes. The Department of Defense (DOD) uses UAs for reconnaissance. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) intends to use UAs for border patrol, pipeline patrol, and waterway security. The Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) envisions unmanned hurricane hunters.

Such a broad diversity in size, performance, and functionality generates a tremendous challenge for the FAA and the aviation industry. While it appears the federal government may be the first users of UAs, visionaries of commercial use are not far behind. Ensuring that UAs safely operate in the nation’s navigable airspace— airspace regulated by the FAA—is crucial and very difficult. Currently, there are three separate but related efforts under way at the FAA.

  1. Today, the FAA issues certificates of authorization (COA) for each and every UA operation it approves. These COAs include provisions where the UA operator must keep the aircraft in sight at all times and use ground spotters to ensure that the aircraft does not present a collision risk to piloted aircraft. If the aircraft is beyond visible range, the FAA requires the operator to utilize a chase aircraft that accompanies the UA on the flight, again ensuring that the trajectory of the UA does not interfere with piloted operations. These COAs are currently issued to UAs operated in conjunction with government activities. AOPA has requested that the FAA publicly coordinate these COAs so that the public has the opportunity to express concerns about their proposed operations. To date, the FAA has denied this request.
  2. The second effort is also near term. The FAA is in the process of drafting rules that establish regulatory guidance for UAS. The term UAS is used to describe the UA as well as the ground control station (if there is one) and any air/ground communication between the two. This regulatory guidance will provide UAS operators with a framework in which they will need to remain in order to legally operate their aircraft. While AOPA can only speculate on what the regulations may be, we expect the FAA to clearly define UAS as well as explain where and how they can operate. AOPA intends to participate in the rulemaking activity to the fullest extent possible.
  3. A longer-term activity is the development of certification standards so that UAS are uniformly certified, and so that all of their functions are certified to an appropriate level of safety. The FAA certification standards will require a conflict-avoidance function similar to see and avoid, which is the primary means of avoiding collisions between aircraft. However, the term used in conjunction with UAS is “sense and avoid” because the operator may be using various systems such as infrared and optical cameras as part of the sense and avoid suite of sensors.

AOPA has exerted industry leadership by volunteering to act as a co-chair of an industry standards development activity at RTCA, a highly successful aviation standards organization. The RTCA Special Committee 203 is charged with developing standards that UAS manufacturers could use to ultimately build their system. The FAA will likely consider the same standard as it develops its certification requirements. More information can be found at the RTCA Web site.

As UAs begin to enter mainstream airspace areas, without spotters or chase-planes, AOPA will strive to ensure that these aircraft are operating at the same level of operational safety as the pilots and aircraft flown by the AOPA membership.

Updated Thursday, January 31, 2008