Some words from the FAA


Fact Sheet – Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)

September 20, 2010
Contact: Les Dorr, Jr or Alison Duquette
Phone: (202) 267-3883


Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and serve diverse purposes. They may have a wingspan as large as a Boeing 737 or smaller than a radio-controlled model airplane. A pilot on the ground is always in charge of UAS operations.

Until recently, UASs mainly supported military and security operations, but that is rapidly changing. Unmanned aircraft promise new ways to increase efficiency, save money, enhance safety and even save lives. Interest is growing in a broad range of uses such as aerial photography, surveying land and crops, monitoring forest fires and environmental conditions, and protecting borders and ports against intruders.

In the United States alone, approximately 50 companies, universities, and government organizations are developing and producing some 155 unmanned aircraft designs.

The FAA’s Role:  Safety First

The FAA’s main concern about UAS operations in the National Airspace System (NAS) is safety. The NAS encompasses an average of more than 100,000 aviation operations per day, including commercial air traffic, cargo operations, and business jets. Additionally, there are more than 238,000 general aviation aircraft in the system at any time. It is critical that aircraft do not endanger other users of the NAS or compromise the safety of persons or property on the ground.

Recreational use of the NAS is covered by FAA Advisory Circular (AC) 91-57 which generally limits operations to below 400 feet above ground level and away from airports and air traffic.

There are two acceptable means of operating UAS in the NAS outside of “restricted” airspace:  a Special Airworthiness Certificate – Experimental Category or a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA).

A Special Airworthiness Certificate in the Experimental Category is the only certification available to civil operators of UAS.  Due to regulatory requirements, this approval precludes carrying persons or property for compensation or hire, but does allow operations for research and development, market survey, and crew training.

Since July 2005, the FAA has issued 78 experimental certificates for 17 different aircraft types. Through these efforts, the FAA works with manufacturers to collect technical and operational data to help improve the UAS airworthiness certification process.

The COA process is available to public entities, such as government agencies (including local law enforcement and state universities), who want to fly a UAS in civil airspace.  Applicants apply online and the FAA evaluates the request. The FAA issues a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA), generally based on the following principles:

  • The COA authorizes an operator to use defined airspace and includes special provisions unique to each operation.  For instance, a COA may include a requirement to operate only under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) and/or during daylight hours. Most COAs are issued for a specified time period (up to one year, in most cases).
  • Most, if not all, COAs require coordination with an appropriate air traffic control facility and may require the UAS to have a transponder to operate in certain types of airspace.
  • Due to the UASs inability to comply with ”sense and avoid” rules, a ground observer or an accompanying “chase” aircraft must maintain visual contact with the UAS and serve as its “eyes” when operating outside of airspace that is restricted from other users.

The FAA is streamlining the COA process and has also increased staffing by more than a dozen people. In 2009, the FAA issued 146 COAs. As of September 1, 2010, there were 251 active COAs for 95 users on 138 different aircraft types.

Operation and Certification Standards

To address the increasing civil market and the desire by civilian operators to fly UASs, the FAA is developing new policies, procedures, and approval processes. Developing and implementing new UAS standards and guidance is a long-term effort.

  • The FAA created the Unmanned Aircraft Program Office (UAPO) and the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) UAS office to integrate UASs safely and efficiently into the NAS.
  • The FAA is working closely with stakeholders in the UAS community to define operational and certification requirements. It is critical to develop and validate appropriate operational procedures, regulatory standards and policies for routine UAS access to the NAS.
  • The FAA has asked RTCA– a group that frequently advises the agency on technical issues – to work with the industry and develop UAS standards.  RTCA will answer two key questions:
  1. How will UASs handle communication, command, and control?
  2. How will UASs “sense and avoid” other aircraft?

These activities are targeted for completion before 2015.

  • The FAA continues to work closely with its international counterparts to harmonize standards, policies, procedures, and regulatory requirements.

Data is Key

More safety data is needed before the FAA can make an informed decision to fully integrate UASs into the NAS, where the public travels each day. Continuing to review of UAS operations will enhance the FAA’s ability to assess the safety and improve the use of this technology.

Small Eyes in the Sky

The FAA expects small UASs to experience the greatest near-term growth in civil and commercial operations because of their versatility and relatively low initial cost and operating expenses. The agency has received extensive public comment on small UASs, both from proponents who feel their size dictates minimal regulation and from groups concerned about hazards to piloted general aviation aircraft and the safety of persons or property on the ground..

In April 2008, the FAA chartered an Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) to examine these operational and safety issues and make recommendations on how to proceed with regulating Small UASs. The agency has received the ARC recommendations, and is drafting a proposed rule. The FAA aims to publish a proposed rule in 2011.

One of the most promising potential uses for small UASs is in law enforcement. Although the Small UAS ARC was not specific to law enforcement organizations, they participated in the Committee.

Currently, any law enforcement organization must follow the COA process if they wish to conduct demonstration flights. The FAA has already worked with urban police departments in Houston and Miami on test programs involving unmanned aircraft. The goal is to help identify the challenges that UASs will bring into this environment and what type of operations can safely be conducted by law enforcement.

The Bottom Line

The introduction of UASs into the NAS is challenging for the FAA and the aviation community. UAS proponents have a growing interest in expediting access to the NAS.  There is an increase in the number and scope of UAS flights in an already busy NAS.

The design of many UASs makes them difficult to see and adequate “detect, sense and avoid” technology is years away.  Decisions being made about UAS airworthiness and operational requirements must fully address safety implications of UASs flying in the same airspace as manned aircraft, and perhaps more importantly, aircraft with passengers.

Statement of Henry Krakowski, Chief Operating Officer, Air Traffic Organization

Before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation, Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, & Security on Field Hearing on the Integration of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs) Into the National Airspace System (NAS): Fulfilling Imminent Operational and Training Requirements

Chairman Dorgan, Senator Conrad, Congressman Pomeroy:

Thank you for inviting the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to this hearing. Accompanying me today is John Allen, Director of the Flight Standards Service in the Office of Aviation Safety at the FAA. Together, we have distinct yet related duties in carrying out the FAA’s mission to ensure the safety and efficiency of the National Airspace System (NAS). Mr. Allen’s organization is charged with setting and enforcing the safety standards for aircraft operators and airmen. My role as the head of the Air Traffic Organization is to oversee the nation’s air traffic control system, to move flights safely and efficiently, while also overseeing the capital programs and the modernization of the system.

As the most complex airspace in the world, the NAS encompasses an average of over 100,000 aviation operations per day, including commercial air traffic, cargo operations, business jets, etc. Additionally, there are over 238,000 general aviation aircraft that represent a wide range of sophistication and capabilities that may enter the system at any time. There are over 500 air traffic control facilities, more than 12,000 air navigation facilities, and over 19,000 airports, not to mention the thousands of other communications, surveillance, weather reporting, and other aviation support facilities. With this volume of traffic and high degree of complexity, the FAA maintains an extremely safe airspace through diligent oversight and the strong commitment to our safety mission.

With regard to unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), the FAA sets the parameters for where a UAS may be operated and how those operations may be conducted safely in the NAS. Our main focus when evaluating UAS operations in the NAS is to avoid any situations in which a UAS would endanger other users of the NAS or compromise the safety of persons or property on the ground. The FAA acknowledges the great potential of UASs in national defense and homeland security, and as such, we strive to accommodate the needs of the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for UAS operations, always with safety as our top priority.

When new aviation technology becomes available, we must determine if the technology itself is safe and that it can be operated safely. Whether the technology is to be used by pilots, operators or air traffic controllers, we determine the risks associated with putting that technology into the NAS. Once the known risks are mitigated, we move forward with integration in stages, assessing safety at each incremental step along the way. Unforeseen developments, changing needs, technological improvements, and human factors all play a role in allowing operations within the civil airspace system.

The FAA is using this same methodology to manage the integration of the new UAS technology into the NAS. While UASs offer a promising new technology, the limited safety and operational data available to date does not yet support expedited or full integration into the NAS. Because current available data is insufficient to allow unfettered integration of UASs into the NAS—where the public travels every day—the FAA must continue to move forward deliberately and cautiously, in accordance with our safety mandate.

Because the airspace is a finite resource, and in order for us to carry out our safety mission, the FAA has developed a few avenues through which UAS operators may gain access to the NAS. First, the FAA has a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) process. This is the avenue by which public users (government agencies, including Federal, state, and local law enforcement, as well as state universities) that wish to fly a UAS can gain access to the NAS, provided that the risks of flying the unmanned aircraft in the civil airspace can be appropriately mitigated. Risk mitigations required to grant a COA frequently include special provisions unique to the requested type of operation. For example, the applicant may be restricted to a defined airspace and/or operating during certain times of the day. The UAS may be required to have a transponder if it is to be flown in a certain type of airspace. A ground observer or accompanying “chase” aircraft may be required to act as the “eyes” of the UAS. Other safety enhancements may be required, depending on the nature of the proposed operation.

The FAA may also set aside airspace for an operator’s exclusive use to segregate the dangerous activity or protect something on the ground, when needed. Some of these exclusive use areas are known as Restricted, Warning or Prohibited Areas. The DoD conducts most of its training in such airspace. In order to set aside Restricted or Prohibited Area airspace, the FAA would need to undertake rulemaking to define the parameters of that airspace. This is typically a time-consuming process that would also include environmental reviews that could impact the proposed airspace.

Civil UAS operators must apply for a Special Airworthiness Certificate – Experimental Category to gain access to the NAS. This avenue allows the civil users to operate UAS for research and development, demonstrations, and crew training. The Special Airworthiness Certificate – Experimental Category does not permit carriage of persons or property for compensation or hire. Thus, commercial UAS operations in the U.S. are not permitted at this time.

We are working with our partners in government and the private sector to advance the development of UAS and the ultimate integration into the NAS. First, in accordance with Section 1036 of the Duncan Hunter National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2009, Public Law 110-417, the DoD and FAA have formed an Executive Committee (ExCom) to focus on conflict resolution and identification of the range of policy, technical, and procedural concerns arising from the integration of UASs into the NAS. Other ExCom members include DHS and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to capture more broadly other Federal agency efforts and equities in the ExCom. The mission of this multi-agency UAS ExCom is to increase, and ultimately enable routine, access of Federal public UAS operations in the NAS to support the operational, training, developmental, and research requirements of the member agencies. All of these partner agencies are working to ensure that each department and agency is putting the proper focus and resources to continue to lead the world in the integration of UAS.

The ExCom’s work has also facilitated the work of the Red River Task Force (RRTF), the interagency working group that was established to work on issues regarding the basing of UAS at Grand Forks Air Force Base (RDR). With the ExCom’s work and the RRTF’s work running in parallel, the FAA is able to support more easily and fully the DoD’s needs at RDR. One of the RRTF’s first tasks was to establish two separate tracks for DoD’s goals at RDR:  one would be an aeronautical proposal that would involve establishment of a new restricted area(s), while the other would be a broader menu of operational options that could be used either as a stand-alone solution or as a layered approach for the operation of UASs at RDR. We have done this in numerous places and continue to streamline the approval process.

Currently, the FAA is working with the DoD to determine and evaluate the scope and details of its operational needs at RDR. In addition, the RRTF has examined 18 option sets that can provide short, mid- and long-term solutions to UAS NAS access at RDR. The FAA continues to be committed to working with the DoD on matters relating to UAS operations at RDR in a manner consistent with our safety mission.

Unmanned aircraft systems are a promising new technology, but one that was originally and primarily designed for military purposes. Although the technology incorporated into UASs has advanced, their safety record warrants caution. As we attempt to integrate these aircraft into the NAS, we will continue to look at any risks that UASs pose to the traveling public as well as the risk to persons or property on the ground. As the agency charged with overseeing the safety of our skies, the FAA seeks to balance our partner agencies’ security, defense, and other public needs with the safety of the NAS. We look forward to continuing our work with our partners and the Congress to do just that.

Chairman Dorgan, Senator Conrad, Congressman Pomeroy, this concludes our prepared remarks. We would be pleased to answer any questions you might have.