July 18, 2014

The FAA said it expects that by Aug. 31 it will take the first step toward codifying the agency’s five-year phased plan to integrate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System (NAS).

Congress mandated that the FAA fully integrate UAS by September 2015 as part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA). However, a recent report by the Department of Transportation Inspector General’s office determined that the agency is unlikely to meet that deadline due to technological challenges surrounding the ability of UASs to detect other aircraft.

Former FAA Deputy Chief Counsel and Acting Chief Counsel Marc Warren noted that any regulations governing the commercial use of UASs would encompass years of concurrent activity by the agency and industry stakeholders in addressing the questions of airworthiness, pilot certification and technological development.

“The industry is understandably frustrated by the amount of time it’s taken to reach this point,” noted Warren. “But although integration of UASs into the airspace is the primary focus of FMRA, the rulemaking element is only one aspect to an incredibly complex and comprehensive undertaking.”

There are signs that the process is about to accelerate. In June, the FAA announced it was considering requests for exemptions filed by seven photo and video production companies to operate UASs under strictly defined conditions. The agency has received similar exemption requests from operators seeking to utilize UASs for oil and gas flare stack inspection, and agriculture, power line and pipeline inspection.

How those exemptions are handled will impact the broader regulatory guidance that will be issued on the widespread use of UAS, Warren noted. Also, the FAA is expected to issue draft regulations later this year affecting commercial use of small UASs under 55 pounds, which would also form a foundation for future integration of larger unmanned aircraft.

NBAA personnel have been instrumental in helping the agency address the technological and certification requirements for safely integrating UAS into the nation’s airspace.

Bob Lamond, NBAA’s director of air traffic services and infrastructure, participates in the FAA’s UAS aviation rulemaking committee, while Sarah Wolf, NBAA’s senior manager for security and facilitation, is a member of a working group within the ARC that is focused on UAS pilot certification requirements under FAR Part 61.

“We are fully engaged in this effort,” Lamond said. “Bottom line, we welcome this new segment of the aviation community and want to ensure that UASs operate in the NAS in a safe and efficient manner.”

Earlier this year, NBAA President and CEO Ed Bolen agreed, stating: “At NBAA, safety is always our top priority, so it is therefore imperative that any introduction plan for UAS be thoughtful, deliberative and focused on safety. This means UAS should not share the same airspace with manned aircraft unless they meet the same certification and airworthiness standards as manned aircraft, including the ability to take timely directions from air traffic control, and to sense and avoid other aircraft and UAS. Additionally, we oppose any steps taken in introducing the aircraft that would reduce or restrict access for business aviation to airspace or airports.”