A quad rotor vehicle flying to validate research on elements of a futuristic control system

The FAA's rules on domestic UAV flights

Current FAA regulations offer two avenues for approval for UAV operations. First, operators can apply for an experimental airworthiness certificate for private-sector civil aircraft to do research and development, training and flight demonstrations.

Selection criteria

The Federal Aviation Administration has not released specifics about the activities that will be allowed in the six test sites it will select for integrating unmanned aerial vehicles into the civilian airspace, nor has it specified procedures for operations. Although FAA is being quiet about the six test sites, it has listed some of the criteria for selection, which includes:

  • Safe designation of airspace for integrated manned and unmanned flight operations in the national airspace system.
  • Development of certification standards and air traffic requirements for unmanned flight operations.
  • Coordinating with and leveraging the resources of NASA and the Defense Department.
  • Addressing both civil and public unmanned aircraft systems.
  • Ensuring that the program is coordinated with the Next Generation Air Transportation System.
  • Ensuring the safety of unmanned aircraft systems and related navigation procedures before they are integrated into the national airspace system.
  • The second avenue requires operators to obtain a Certificate of Authorization (COA) for public aircraft, which are those that are owned by the U.S. government or a state. Routine operation of UAVs over densely populated areas is prohibited.

    According to FAA documentation, most COAs require coordination with an air traffic control facility. Additionally the FAA may require an active transponder on the aircraft if it operates in certain types of airspace. Finally, an observer on the ground or in an accompanying chase plane must maintain visual contact with the UAV.

    There were 327 COAs active as of Feb. 15, 2013. COAs issued by the FAA:

    2009          146
    2010          298
    2011          313
    2012          257

    Many of the COAs issued to date have gone to federal, state and local government agencies, as well as to universities conducting research, FAA says. The Department of Homeland Security, for example, uses drones for border monitoring. NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration use them for atmospheric and other research.

    Virginia Tech is using drones for mapping and study of agricultural diseases, and scientists from several universities are researching pygmy rabbit habitats in eastern and central Idaho.

    Current work on developing and deploying sense-and-avoid technologies could lead to wider use of drones, though that will also depend on FAA regulations.

    About the Author

    Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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