FAA Fact Sheet –
Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)
For Immediate Release
December 14, 2012
Contact: Les Dorr or Alison
Phone: (202) 267-3883 (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. Regardless
of size, the responsibility to fly safely applies equally to manned and
unmanned aircraft operations.
Because they are inherently
different from manned aircraft, introducing UAS into the nation’s
airspace is challenging for both the FAA and aviation community. UAS
must be integrated into a National Airspace System (NAS) that is
evolving from ground-based navigation aids to a GPS-based system in
NextGen. Safe integration of UAS involves gaining a better understanding
of operational issues, such as training requirements, operational
specifications and technology considerations.
The FAA’s Role: Safety
Safety is the FAA's top mission,
and the agency maintains the world's safest aviation system. As a
provider of air traffic control services, the FAA also must ensure the
safety and efficiency of the nation’s entire airspace.
The FAA first authorized use of
unmanned aircraft in the NAS in 1990. Since then, the agency has
authorized limited use of UAS for important missions in the public
interest, such as firefighting, disaster relief, search and rescue, law
enforcement, border patrol, military training and testing and
evaluation. Today, UAS perform border and port surveillance by the
Department of Homeland Security, help with scientific research and
environmental monitoring by NASA and NOAA, support public safety by law
enforcement agencies, help state universities conduct research, and
support various other missions for public (government) entities.
Unmanned aircraft are flying now
in the national airspace system under very controlled conditions.
Operations potentially range from ground level to above 50,000 feet,
depending on the specific type of aircraft. However, UAS operations are
currently not authorized in Class B airspace, which exists over major
urban areas and contains the highest density of manned aircraft in the
National Airspace System.
There are currently two ways to
get FAA approval to operate a UAS. The first is to obtain an
experimental airworthiness certificate for private sector (civil)
aircraft to do research and development, training and flight
demonstrations. The second is to obtain a Certificate of Waiver or
Authorization (COA) for public aircraft. Routine operation of UAS over
densely-populated areas is prohibited.
Obtaining an experimental
airworthiness certificate for a particular UAS is currently the only way
civil operators of unmanned aircraft are accessing the NAS. Experimental
certificate regulations preclude carrying people or property for
compensation or hire, but do allow operations for research and
development, flight and sales demonstrations and crew training. The FAA
is working with civilian operators to collect technical and operational
data that will help refine the UAS airworthiness certification process.
The agency is currently developing a future path for safe integration of
civil UAS into the NAS as part of NextGen implementation.
COAs are available to public
entities that want to fly a UAS in civil airspace. Common uses today
include law enforcement, firefighting, border patrol, disaster relief,
search and rescue, military training, and other government operational
Applicants make their request
through an online process and the FAA evaluates the proposed operation
to see if it can be conducted safely.
The COA allows an operator to use
a defined block of airspace and includes special provisions unique to
the proposed operation. For instance, a COA may require flying only
under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) and/or only during daylight hours. COAs
usually are issued for a specific period—up to two years in many cases.
Most COAs require coordination
with an appropriate air traffic control facility and may require a
transponder on the UAS to operate in certain types of airspace.
Because UAS technology cannot
currently comply with “see and avoid” rules that apply to all aircraft,
a visual observer or an accompanying “chase plane” must maintain visual
contact with the UAS and serve as its “eyes” when operating outside
airspace restricted from other users.
There were 345 COAs active at the
end of November 2012.
Streamlining the Process
The FAA has been working with its
government partners to streamline COA
procedures. In 2009, the FAA,
NASA and the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security formed a UAS
Executive Committee, or “ExCom” to address UAS integration issues. The
ExCom established a working group that developed suggestions to expedite
the COA process and increase transparency.
from public users, the FAA has an on-line process that ensures paperwork
is complete and ready to be assessed. Today, the average time to issue
an authorization for non-emergency operations is less than 60 days, and
the renewal period is two years. The agency has expedited procedures in
place to grant one-time COAs for time-sensitive emergency missions, such
as disaster relief and humanitarian efforts.
Recreational use of airspace by
model aircraft is covered by FAA Advisory Circular 91-57, which
generally limits operations to below 400 feet above ground level and
away from airports and air traffic. In 2007, the FAA clarified that AC
91-57 only applies to modelers, and specifically excludes individuals or
companies flying model aircraft for business purposes.
The FAA guidance is
Operation and Certification
Integrating UAS into the nation’s
airspace presents both opportunities and challenges. However, everything
the FAA does is focused on ensuring the safety of the nation’s aviation
system. New policies, procedures and approval processes will address the
increasing desire by civilian operators to fly UAS in the NAS.
Developing and implementing new UAS standards and guidance is a
The FAA chartered a UAS Aviation
Rulemaking Committee in 2011 to develop inputs and recommendations on
appropriate operational procedures, regulatory standards and policies
before allowing routine UAS access to the nation’s airspace.
The FAA has asked RTCA – organized
in 1935 as the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, a group that
facilitates expert advice to the agency on technical issues – to work
with industry to assist in the development of UAS standards. RTCA’s
technical group will address how UAS will handle communication, command
and control and how they will “sense and avoid” other aircraft.
The FAA continues to work closely
with its international aviation counterparts to harmonize standards,
policies, procedures and regulatory requirements.
UAS Test Sites
In the FAA Modernization and
Reform Act of 2012, Congress directed the FAA to establish a program to
integrate UAS into the national airspace system at six test ranges. The
designation and operation of test sites will be a tool for testing all
aspects of UAS integration. Some facets of test site selection and
Safe designation of airspace for
integrated manned and unmanned flight operations in the national
Development of certification
standards and air traffic requirements for unmanned flight operations
Coordinating with and leveraging
the resources of NASA and the Department of Defense
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 FAA will next ask for
proposals to manage these sites; however, the agency is evaluating
options for appropriately addressing privacy concerns regarding the
expanded use of UAS. The FAA is working to move forward with the
proposals for the six test sites as quickly as possible.
Small Unmanned Aircraft
Small unmanned aircraft (UAS) are
likely to grow most quickly in civil and commercial operations because
of their versatility and relatively low initial cost and operating
expenses. The FAA is working on a proposed rule governing the use of a
wide range of small civil unmanned aircraft systems.
The 2012 reauthorization bill also
directed the FAA to “allow a government public safety agency to operate
unmanned aircraft weighing 4.4 pounds or less” under certain
restrictions. The bill specified these UAS must be flown within the line
of sight of the operator, less than 400 feet above the ground, during
daylight conditions, inside Class G (uncontrolled) airspace and more
than five miles from any airport or other location with aviation
Prior to the congressional action,
the FAA and the Justice Department had been working on an agreement to
streamline the COA process for law enforcement – an agreement that also
meets the mandate. Initially, law enforcement organizations will receive
a COA for training and performance evaluation. When the organization has
shown proficiency in flying its UAS, it will receive an operational COA.
The agreement expands the allowable UAS weight up to 25 pounds.
A New Office for New Technology
In 2012, the FAA established the
Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office to provide a one-stop
portal for civil and public use UAS in U.S. airspace. This office is
developing a comprehensive plan to integrate and establish operational
and certification requirements for UAS. It will also oversee and
coordinate UAS research and development.
Over more than 50 years, the FAA
has a proven track record of introducing new technology and aircraft
safely into the NAS. The agency will successfully meet the challenges
posed by UAS technology in a thoughtful, careful manner that ensures
safety and addresses privacy issues while promoting economic growth.
For more information:
Authorization or Waiver (COA)
COA is an
authorization issued by the Air Traffic
Organization to a public operator for a specific
UA activity. After a complete application is
submitted, FAA conducts a comprehensive
operational and technical review. If necessary,
provisions or limitations may be imposed as part
of the approval to ensure the UA can operate
safely with other airspace users. In most cases,
FAA will provide a formal response within 60
days from the time a completed application is
better support the needs of our customers, FAA
deployed a web-based application system. The
UAS COA Online System
provides applicants with an electronic method of
requesting a COA. Applicants will need to obtain
an account in order to access the online system.
email the FAA/UAS office at
with any questions or for more information
regarding Certificate of Waivers or
Note: Homeland Surveillance & Electronics LLC
Mission is also to protect the privacy rights of the individuals and to work
with government agencies, organizations and businesses to help insure that those rights are not infringed.
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