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Regulatory Brief: Unmanned Aircraft SystemsRegulatory Brief: Unmanned Aircraft Systems


Commercial, public benefit, and military use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are not authorized in the National Airspace System without an FAA certificate of authorization (COA) that grants special permission to conduct operations. The exceptions to this requirement are agreements that the FAA has entered into with the Department of Defense and the Department of Interior to allow small UAS operations at low altitude over U.S. Army military installations and Department of Interior lands.

To date, more than 600 certificates of authorization have been issued nationwide. With a few exceptions, all of the certificates of authorization have been granted to the military, law enforcement, universities, and other public-use aircraft. Commercial certificates of authorization have been issued to an oil company in Alaska and a movie studio consortium in California. There are more than 40 commercial certificates of authorization under review as of Oct. 1, 2014. A certificate of authorization mitigates safety concerns and can cover a single flight or multiple flights. Certificates of authorization have an expiration date (varying from a week to a year or more). Certificate of authorization details are not published.

UAS typically operate in low-altitude airspace or above FL180. Currently, flight path information is not available from any government or public source.

AOPA’s UAS policy position

To integrate UAS into the National Airspace System, the FAA must implement rules and procedures that ensure UAS are operated safely and compatibly with other users of the National Airspace System. As a general policy, UAS should:

  • Be certified with a standard airworthiness certificate
  • Be flown by a certificated pilot/operator
  • Be flown in compliance with current operating rules and airspace requirements

AOPA has long held concerns about the impact of UAS operations on general aviation. The association’s biggest concerns are safety and the possibility that the FAA would implement special-use airspace for exclusive use by UAS, impacting GA access.

In 2004, AOPA formally requested that the FAA task an advisory committee with developing consensus standards for small UAS operations (UAS that weigh 55 pounds or less). In response, the FAA established the committee. AOPA actively participated, and the consensus recommendations reflect the association’s stated policy on small UAS integration. The FAA accepted the consensus standards in 2007, but has yet to release a proposed rule.

Current Status

In 2011, the FAA established a UAS Aviation Rulemaking Committee and tasked it with developing UAS rulemaking recommendations for large UAS. The committee will have recommendations completed by June 2015. AOPA is on the committee.

In 2012, Congress passed legislation that requires the FAA develop a plan and integrate UAS operations into the National Airspace System by 2015. The FAA subsequently issued its UAS National Airspace System Roadmap that outlines a general plan for integrating UAS into the NAS by the year 2022.

In June 2014, the FAA published an interpretation of rules for model aircraft, which provides further guidance for model aircraft operators and distinguishes between commercial UAS operations and model aircraft operations by hobbyists. The interpretation was accompanied by a list of “Dos and don’ts of flying safely.”

Updated Tuesday, December 23, 2014