Civil aviation authorities on three continents are mapping strategies for integrating a surge of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into civil airspace, preparing to designate research sites where the vehicles will be permitted to operate and examining safety and privacy concerns.
As the systems have advanced, the terminology used to describe them has changed. Previously known as unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) refers to them as UAS, while the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the European Commission (EC) have begun calling them remotely piloted aircraft or remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS).
ICAO, in the 2013 revision of its Global Aviation Safety Plan, says the notion of having RPAS fully integrated into shared airspace will soon be a reality and that related information and data will evolve rapidly.
An earlier ICAO document predicted that the integration process would be “a long-term activity with many stakeholders adding their expertise on such diverse topics as licensing and medical qualification of … crew, technologies for detect-and-avoid systems, frequency spectrum (including its protection from unintentional or unlawful interference), separation standards from other aircraft and development of a robust regulatory framework.”1
50 Site Applications
In the United States, current activity centers on the FAA’s preparations to select six UAS test ranges — required by a 2012 law — that will be used to “develop a body of data and operational experiences to inform integration and the safe operation of these [UAS] aircraft in the National Airspace System.” At the same time, the FAA has set a late April deadline for receiving public comment on its proposed methods of addressing privacy concerns associated with UAS operations within the test site program.
The FAA says it received 50 applications for test sites in 37 states (map). Rules governing the site selection process preclude the FAA from disclosing details of the applications, but the agency has said that its goal is to select six sites that will enable the study of UAS operations under all types of conditions — in a wide variety of geographical locations and climate conditions, for example — and in areas with varying air traffic density and ground infrastructure. Varying research needs also will be considered.
Site selections are expected to be announced late this year.
Meanwhile, state officials and others representing UAS concerns have outlined their proposals.
For example, Oklahoma, which vowed to “compete aggressively” to host one of the FAA UAS test sites, said in a 2012 report by the Oklahoma UAS Systems Council that it already had at least 15 private companies “involved in all facets of UAS,” along with related research and development programs, education and training, and a detailed plan to develop the UAS industry in the state.2
Among the UAS projects under consideration in Oklahoma are those involving oil and gas pipeline inspection, weather monitoring and several areas of radar development, including radar aeroecology, which uses radar to detect the behavior of birds and other airborne animals — a technology that might eventually help prevent bird strikes.
Ohio, which joined with Indiana in applying for an FAA test site designation, in 2012 established the Ohio UAS Center and Test Complex, described by James Leftwich, the state’s special adviser for UAS initiatives, as “a problem-solver and door-opener for anyone who needs airspace, access to ground facilities, research and analytic support and everything else it takes to move the UAS frontier forward safely, successfully and steadily.”3
A study released in March by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) estimated that, in the first three years after the planned 2015 integration of UAS into U.S. airspace, the industry will create 70,000 new jobs. By 2025, the number will top 100,000, according to projections.4
The study projected the largest market for UAS in the United States would be the precision agriculture industry, which would use UAS to monitor crops and apply pesticides. Another major market would be in public safety.
Some public safety uses, including surveillance, have prompted objections from critics who cite privacy concerns, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which warns that “routine aerial surveillance would profoundly change the character of public life in America.
“Rules must be put in place to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a ‘surveillance society’ in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the government.”5
Some state legislatures are considering action to regulate the use of UAS in surveillance, and at least one — Virginia, another of the states seeking a UAS test site designation — already has passed legislation calling for a two-year moratorium on law enforcement use, with exceptions for search-and-rescue operations. The legislation does not apply to UAS used in research by universities and other research organizations.
As the legislation was being debated earlier this year, the Virginia Technology Alliance for Public Safety formed to promote what it considers the economic development and public safety benefits of UAS.
Alliance member Robert Fitzgerald, president of Bosh Global Services, which designs and builds UAS-related operations and technology services, said the public safety uses of UAS are “greatly misunderstood” and that the small, lightweight systems now being developed can help assess “natural disasters, fires, hazardous spills and other dangerous situations remotely, without putting additional lives at risk.”6
Nevertheless, the ACLU said, safeguards should be in place to limit law enforcement use of UAS to emergencies and other specific situations, and to prohibit retention of UAS-derived images unless “there is reasonable suspicion that they contain evidence of a crime or are relevant to an ongoing investigation or trial.” In addition, the ACLU called for written usage policies to be developed by “the public’s representatives,” not law enforcement authorities, and for UAS use to be subject to oversight, including open audits.
Michael Toscano, president and CEO of AUVSI, said the UAS industry also is concerned about privacy issues.
“Safeguarding people’s privacy is important to my industry as well,” Toscano said in testimony in March before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. “Last year, AUVSI published a code of conduct explicitly directing users to respect individual privacy. … AUVSI strongly opposes any misuse of UAS technology.”
Toscano noted the “robust legal framework already in place” to regulate the use by law enforcement of any type of technology, “whether it is unmanned aircraft, manned aircraft, thermal imaging GPS [global positioning systems] or cell phones.”
The FAA acknowledged that the integration of UAS into U.S. airspace raises privacy issues, which it plans to address “through engagement and collaboration with the public.” In addition to accepting written comments from the public, the agency also held an online session.
The FAA’s initial privacy proposal calls for operators of the test sites to enter into an agreement with the FAA on the terms and conditions — including privacy conditions — under which they will operate the test sites. The proposed privacy requirements would direct site operators to ensure that publicly available privacy policies exist to cover all site activities, including UAS operations.
Another proposal says that site operators must comply with federal, state and other laws on individual privacy protections; if an operator is found to have violated privacy laws, the FAA may end its operational authority.
The proposed privacy requirements are intended specifically for the test sites, the FAA said, and “are not intended to pre-determine the long-term policy and regulatory framework under which commercial UASs would operate. Rather, they aim to assure maximum transparency of privacy policies associated with UAS test site operations in order to engage all stakeholders in discussion about which privacy issues are raised by UAS operations and how law, public policy and the industry practices should respond to those issues in the long run.”
UAS have been in U.S. skies in limited numbers since the FAA first authorized their use in 1990. Typical uses have included fire fighting, disaster relief, search and rescue, law enforcement, border patrol, military training, scientific research and environmental monitoring.
Today, they operate “under very controlled conditions,” usually not in large urban areas, the FAA said.
Operators of civil UAS must obtain an experimental airworthiness certificate; most active civil UAS are involved in research and development, flight and sales demonstrations or crew training.
Public UAS, operated by government agencies, must have a certificate of waiver or authorization and typically operate under mission-specific requirements such as only during daylight, with a transponder and/or in coordination with an air traffic control facility. Because these aircraft cannot comply with see-and-avoid rules, they must be accompanied by “a visual observer or … chase plane [that] must maintain visual contact with the UAS and serve as its ‘eyes’ when operating outside airspace restricted from other users,” the FAA said.
In Europe, the Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research (SESAR) Joint Undertaking (SJU) is planning to authorize 10 demonstration projects aimed at exploring how remotely piloted aircraft systems will be integrated into the aviation community by 2016.7
The SJU has established a May 31 deadline for demonstration project proposals, including “integrated pre-operational flight trials activities.” The projects, which will involve various types and sizes of remotely piloted air systems, must be performed in European Union or Eurocontrol member states between October 2013 and March 2015.
The EC said the development of remotely piloted aircraft systems has “opened a promising new chapter in the history of aerospace.”
Civil aviation has yet to follow the military in its widespread use of unmanned aircraft, the EC said.
When it does, the EC added, unmanned aircraft “can offer a wide range of civil applications for the benefit of European citizens and businesses. … [The aircraft] can perform tasks that manned systems cannot perform, either for safety or for economic reasons.”
Among those tasks are long-duration monitoring, crisis management, border control, fire fighting and operations in clouds of volcanic ash, the EC said. “RPAS can also deliver profitable commercial aerial services in various areas, such as in precision agriculture and fisheries, power or gas line monitoring, infrastructure inspection, communications and broadcast services, wireless communication relay and satellite augmentation systems, natural resources monitoring, media and entertainment, digital mapping, land and wildlife management, [and] air quality control and management.”
In Australia, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) is planning the gradual implementation of regulations for remotely piloted aircraft.
Regulations will be proposed for different categories of remotely piloted aircraft, and authorities are considering simplifying the certification process for those that will be used in less complex and less risky operations. In many instances, non-binding guidance material will be introduced first, followed by adoption of regulations, CASA said.
In a February speech to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems Australia, Director of Aviation Safety John McCormick said that — because 90 percent of the remotely piloted aircraft operated in Australia weigh less than 7 kg (15 lb) and because of their many capabilities — “it is impossible for CASA to effectively regulate all of them.”
Instead, McCormick said, “we have to address the current reality. There is no point in CASA writing regulations that can’t be enforced. … Consequently, CASA is now looking at introducing a weight limit to make it less onerous for commercial operators to use small remotely piloted aircraft.”
The agency’s goal is to emphasize safety throughout the development of new regulations, McCormick said.
“This means ensuring the safety of any other airspace user, as well as the safety of persons and property on the ground,” he said. “Development of the complete regulatory framework for remotely piloted aircraft will be a lengthy effort. This is not a knee-jerk reaction, it is an evolutionary process, with regulations being added or amended gradually.”
- ICAO. Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), Cir 328. 2011.
- Oklahoma Governor’s Unmanned Aerial Systems Council. A Strategic Plan for the Development of an Unmanned Aerial Systems Enterprise in the State of Oklahoma. 2012.
- Governor’s Communications Office. “Ohio Launches One-Stop Shop for Unmanned Aircraft Efforts.”
- Jenkins, Darryl; Vasigh, Bijan. The Economic Impact of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the United States. A special report prepared at the request of AUVSI. March 2013.
- ACLU. Blog of Rights: Domestic Drones.
- AUVSI. “AUVSI Joins New Coalition to Promote Innovation, Jobs and Safety.”
- EC. “Aeronautic Industries: Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS).” (revised link)