FAA Moves Slowly To Introduce UAS to Civil Airspace

 - February 3, 2013, 5:10 AM

There’s no question that unmanned aircraft systems (UAS, replacing the former UAV acronym) are coming to the NAS. The name change, from unmanned aerial vehicles to unmanned aerial systems, reflects what the machines are all about, since UAV didn’t properly recognize that in future configurations the ground control element would be as essential as the airborne part.

And let’s leave the word “drones” to the popular media. In the animal world, drones are generally lazy, unproductive and die off quickly. In aviation, UAS will have some important roles to play, many of them dull, dirty and dangerous, which also includes saving lives.

For some years, of course, UAS such as the Global Hawk and the Predator have been operational with U.S. and allied militaries, with some experts forecasting that future armed forces will field mixed operations, split approximately equally between manned and unmanned aircraft.

NAS Integration

But civil UAS demands will be quite different. Consequently, the FAA is moving toward NAS introduction in a three-phase program, described by Randy Willis, air traffic manager of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office, AFS-80, at a November conference in Ottawa hosted by Unmanned Systems Canada. In the first phase, regulators must address these questions about unmanned aerial systems: How well can they be accommodated with other civil traffic? How airworthy must they be? How safe will they need to be? What rules should apply to them and their operators? With those and related questions answered, the second, mid-term, phase–initial transition to NAS integration–can commence. Following that, the third, long-term, phase of integration into the NextGen NAS will get under way. At this time how long that will take is unforecast, but it will certainly take several years.

The first phase includes the establishment of six test sites at selected locations where candidate UAS will be subject to rigorous technical and operational evaluation. The February 2012 FAA Reauthorization Act anticipated that selection and testing commencement would occur in mid/late 2012.

However, AIN has learned that public fears and privacy concerns about being regularly spied–or crashed–upon by errant UASs had become much more widespread than anyone ever imagined, and some high-ranking politicians were feeling the heat from their constituents, delaying the program and causing the FAA to feel it has to proceed carefully.

One industry executive told AIN he believes that the privacy issue is unlikely to be resolved much before year-end. But he and other informed observers, including senior government officials, believe that without positive political action and appropriate legislation to counter the public’s “drone phobia,” delays in launching the UAS program could jeopardize current U.S. leadership in what is viewed as a multibillion-dollar world market. In the current economic climate, they feel, that’s a risk we shouldn’t take.


The term "UAS" has, and continues, to create significant confusion and misunderstanding not just by the public, but by government organizations that are critical to the advancement and integration of the capabilities that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) provide. Words matter…that’s why the Air Force changed how it refers to these aircraft as "remotely piloted aircraft (RPA)" vice “unmanned aircraft system (UAS).” Today, there is nothing "unmanned" about the “system” except the aircraft itself. It nominally takes over 200 people to operate and exploit one MQ-1 Predator, or MQ-9 Reaper orbit.

"UAV" is an accurate description of the aircraft themselves that are used to create capability that relies on a "system" that consists of many more elements than the vehicle itself (e.g. ground stations, relays, analysts, logistics, etc.). The intent of the shift to the term "UAS" was to indicate that there was much more to the "system" than simply the unmanned aircraft. However, RPA is a more accurate description of the "system" than is "UAS." A couple of years ago--just as the Air Force was incorporating the use of the term RPA--I was giving a presentation at a conference on the Air Force plans for RPAs. Afterward, a senior FAA official came up and told me that the single most significant event that had moved the FAA forward in progressing toward airspace integration of UAVs, was the change in name to "RPAs" because that change in terminology brought the realization to many in the FAA that a human being was actually in the control loop. Words matter. "UAS" creates the same kind of wrong impression of RPAs as does the word "drone," another word subject to creating misperceptions and outright incorrect understanding. There is simply not the degree of autonomy in the operation and exploitation of RPAs today that supports continued use of the term UAS, and it continues to confuse, rather than facilitate the normalization of RPA capability.

Dave Deptula Sr, Lt Gen USAF (Ret)

To date no UAS is able to comply with federal regulations requiring aircraft operating with the National Airspace System to See-And-Avoid other aircraft. The GAO in its February 15, 2013 Testimony Before the Subcommittee on Oversight, Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, House of Representatives (available here: <http://www.gao.gov/assets/660/652223.pdf>) stated:

"To date, no suitable technology has been deployed that would provide
UAS with the capability to sense and avoid other aircraft and airborne
objects and to comply completely with FAA regulatory requirements of the
national airspace."

Until UAS are able to comply with ALL the federal regulation requirements of manned aircraft, they MUST NOT BE PERMITTED TO POSE A HAZARD TO THE FLYING PUBLIC within the NAS. This includes the 18 General Atomics MQ-9 Reapers mandated by the Senate immigration reform bill to patrol the US southern boarder, as well as those six currently deployed in that service. Read about domestic UAS abysmal record here: <http://www.ibtimes.com/immigration-reform-2013-drones-are-costly-border-.... Boarder patrol could be accomplished at 1/30th the cost by manned single engine aircraft, and that would put hundreds of civil pilots to work right away.

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