The FAA is looking for a few good sites to test unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), signaling that momentum is building toward merging manned and unmanned aircraft in unrestricted airspace.
The agency announced March 7 that it is seeking public comment on the site-selection process in advance of issuing a request for proposals to operate the sites. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, signed into law on February 14, requires the FAA to establish a test program for UAS within six months. The reauthorization bill also sets a deadline for the integration of civil unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System (NAS) “as soon as practicable, but not later than September 30, 2015.” Similarly, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, enacted on December 31, calls on the FAA to establish a test program at six ranges, reflecting the military’s strong interest in opening access to the NAS for unmanned aircraft.
In addition to the 2015 deadline for UAS integration, the FAA reauthorization bill instructs the agency within three months to “simplify” the existing process of issuing certificates or waivers of authorization to government agencies that operate unmanned aircraft in the NAS and, sooner, to allow public-safety agencies to fly UAS weighing 4.4 pounds or less in remote Class G airspace under certain conditions.
Draft Rule Not Yet Released
The legislative direction on UAS adds urgency to the FAA’s own plodding regulatory process. The agency chartered a small UAS aviation rulemaking committee (ARC) in April 2008 that one year later issued recommendations for introducing UAS weighing up to 55 pounds into the NAS. The recommendations were intended to inform a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) being promulgated by the FAA. The agency expected to release the NPRM by last December, but the draft rule has since been postponed with no definitive release date announced. Richard Prosek, manager of the FAA’s unmanned aircraft program office, told a late-February meeting of RTCA Special Committee 203, which is developing UAS performance standards, that the NPRM should be released by the end of June.
The delay may have as much to do with legal concerns as with technical considerations. One source said the FAA’s parent agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation, is likely “doing a good scrub” of the draft rule over liability issues. Already, the pending introduction of UAS–or “drones” in mainstream parlance–into civilian, unrestricted airspace faces scrutiny from organizations including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“Unmanned aircraft carrying cameras raise the prospect of a significant new avenue for the surveillance of American life,” the ACLU warned in a December paper containing recommendations for restricted usage of UAS. “[T]he technology is quickly becoming cheaper and more powerful, interest in deploying drones among police departments is increasing and our privacy laws are not strong enough to ensure that the new technology will be used responsibly and consistently with democratic values.”
Weighing in on the side of timely integration of unmanned aircraft are the UAS industry, proponents in Congress and powerful federal agencies. In its most recent aerospace forecast issued in March, the FAA said more than 50 companies, universities and government organizations are developing and producing 155 unmanned aircraft designs. “Based upon the expected regulatory environment,” the agency said it predicts “roughly 10,000 active commercial UASs in five years.” Last June, the FAA formed a new ARC to recommend on issues arising from broad introduction of UAS into the airspace.
The FAA reauthorization bill directs the agency to consult with NASA and the Department of Defense in determining the six UAS test range locations. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, testifying in March before House and Senate appropriations subcommittees, said the multi-agency Joint Planning and Development Office will lead efforts to achieve the integration of UAS in the NAS as of Fiscal Year 2013, which begins in October.