On Feb. 14, 2012, after five years of legislative issues, a temporary two-week shutdown of the FAA and 23 stopgap measures, President Obama signed into law the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (H.R. 658). The bill speeds the nation’s switch from radar to an air traffic control system based on GPS technology called the Next Generation Air Transportation System. The bill will also open U.S skies to unmanned drone flights in less than four years.

The bill authorizes $63.4 billion for the FAA, including about $11 billion toward the air traffic system and its modernization. It sets a deadline of June 2015 for the FAA to develop new arrival procedures at the nation’s 35 busiest airports so planes can land using the more advanced, precise GPS navigation.

Also under the bill, the FAA is required to provide military, commercial and privately-owned drones with expanded access to U.S. airspace by Sep. 30, 2015. That means permitting unmanned drones controlled by remote operators on the ground--also called unmanned airborne systems (UAS) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)--to fly in the same airspace as airlines, cargo planes, business jets and private aircraft.

“The passage of this bill is encouraging for geospatial professionals since we now have an end goal. With a timeline now identified for the expansion of unmanned aerial systems into public airspace, the geospatial community has a lot of work to do,” said Jeff Lovin, Woolpert senior vice president and director of geospatial services.

Currently, drone use is primarily used in segregated blocks of military airspace, border control and 300 public agencies and their partners. Within nine months of the bill’s passage, the FAA is required to submit a plan on how to safely provide drones with expanded access.

“There have been many reasons for the delay [in FAA approval of drones], but potential commercial operators need to realize that paramount among these are the safety issues,” said geomatics consultant Joseph V.R. Paiva, PhD, PS, PE, in a recent article “Even when commercial flights are allowed, it will not be the same as sending a crew out to survey the back 40 with a total station or RTK GPS system. Compliance with many overlapping regulatory and safety priorities will require planning, training, medical certificates, ‘check rides,’ refresher courses, formal permission requests to enter the airspace, and other stipulations.” Lovin said geospatial professionals can play a key role in paving the way for this alternative data collection technology. “Since GPS and geospatial data are integral to air safety, it provides an excellent opportunity for the geospatial community to support the FAA in resolving any related issues prior to Sep. 30, 2015,” he said.

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