Author's note: This is being written following the Amazon announcement of potential package delivery via drone in 2015. How real is this? Time will tell, but the date is not likely, and even if they develop this service, it is not likely that more than a fraction of the U.S. population will be able to use it. But that’s an article for another day.
The FAA released its UAS Roadmap and plan for integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the national airspace system (NAS) on Nov. 7, 2013. You can find these documents on the Web at this site: http://www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/uas/.
There’s much information to sort through. So the implications of what this means for surveyors and the geospatial community will take some time to develop.
What about UAS for surveying and mapping? There is much that the FAA does not define, or even touch, other than to mention broadly in these documents that makes it difficult to state unequivocally how and when surveying and mapping operations using UAS by non-governmental entities might occur. But here are some clear messages:
- The UAS test ranges called for in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 required their implementation by the end of 2012. In the just-published reports, the FAA indicated that implementation would occur by the end of 2013. If this is accomplished, it is a full twelve months after the date set by the act. This may give us some idea of how the reality of goals set by Congress is achieved by the FAA after considering real-life circumstances.
- The small UAS (sUAS) rules for unmanned aircraft under 55 pounds are still under development. The FAA states that they will release a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) in 2014. Optimists will note that the FAA says in some places in these just-released documents that the NPRM may be issued in “early 2014.” However, the comprehensive plan offers no such presumption on the date, giving the FAA latitude until the end of 2014. Note that this is only the proposal. The FAA then takes comments from the public. There is no stated schedule for when the comments will be considered to create the rules and then implement them.
As part of the National Goals stated for sUAS integration, the FAA states in the Comprehensive Plan (page 9) that routine visual line of sight (VLOS) operation initial capability for public aircraft without a special authorization such as a COA and civil aircraft without a special airworthiness certificate will be in 2015, starting with airspace over unpopulated areas outside Class B and C and growing to all classes subject to airspace requirements. This is a year, at least, after when most of us thought it would be after reading the 2012 congressional mandate.
- The comparable goal for enabling routine public operation of all UAS is also expected for 2015. However civil UAS (not sUAS) operations are not projected to occur until 2020.
There are many aspects of UAS operation that need to be ferreted out from these documents. Keep in mind that schedules will change and even proposed requirements for operation will change.
There is no doubt that aircraft will have to be certified for safe operation and that pilots will have to be trained and certified. It is likely that pilots and observers will be required to demonstrate compliance with medical certificates, though what level of medical examination they will be required to pass is unclear. Ability to demonstrate competence to communicate with air traffic controllers will be likely. And proficiency training and flights are likely as well. This automatically brings into play a requirement to maintain logbooks—for operators, possibly for observers, and for the air vehicle itself.
Surveyors may find these requirements onerous, but experts seem to think, and the FAA documents seem to imply, that they will be simpler in many cases than what manned aircraft pilots (and aircraft) need to go through. Safety is FAA’s paramount concern; however, they also see a need to create rules, based on Congress’s pronouncements, relating to privacy concerns that have not been fully voiced, discussed (or even understood).
It is clear, however, that the FAA understands the huge economic benefit to the population that is strangled currently by not permitting operation of UAS, especially by the private sector. Perhaps this is where the Amazon announcement may place the subtle pressure of economic cost on the FAA’s so-far laggardly pace at facilitating controlled UAS operations in the national airspace.
Explanation of Terms
Civil aircraft: aircraft operated by non-governmental organization that is not used for hobby purposes.
NAS: national airspace.
PIC: Pilot in command. This is the person responsible for controlling the aircraft and whose responsibility it is to ensure the safety of all persons and property.
Public aircraft: aircraft operated by a governmental entity.
sUAS: small unmanned airborne system, defined by the FAA as under 55 pounds takeoff weight.
VLOS: visual line of sight. This is a likely limitation, at least in the early times, for operating a UAS. If you can’t see it, you can’t fly it. This is likely to be in addition to other rules with respect to horizontal and vertical distance limitations from the pilot-in-command and/or takeoff or landing points.
NOTE: This story was corrected on Dec. 6 at 11 a.m. to indicate that routine visual line of sight (VLOS) operation initial capability for public aircraft without a special authorization such as a COA and civil aircraft without a special airworthiness certificate will be in 2015, starting with airspace over unpopulated areas outside Class B and C and growing to all classes subject to airspace requirements.