On Monday, Feb. 6, the U.S. Senate passed the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act. The bill now awaits President Obama's signature. This bill covers a broad list of topics, but of interest to surveyors are the sections relating to unmanned airborne systems (UAS). The most significant aspects of this bill are several deadlines set for the FAA, including a full integration of UAS in the national airspace system (AS) by Sept. 30, 2015.

While there has been evidence that the FAA has been moving on this integration, Congress now has put a deadline on it. UAS developers and potential users have been frustrated by the constant postponement of proposed rules promised by the FAA to start opening up the skies to UAS.

The quick description of the situation is that currently only government agencies are allowed to apply for a certificate of authorization (COA) to fly UAS. Flights for commercial reasons are prohibited; a potential commercial operator such as a surveyor, air survey company, construction company or mine operator is not even allowed to apply for permission to fly a UAS. There is a special airworthiness certificate provision for manufacturers for testing, training and demonstration purposes only.

There have been many reasons for the delay, but potential commercial operators need to realize that paramount among these are the safety issues. 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.

In addition to the 2015 deadline, the bill requires the FAA to create a five-year UAS roadmap to allow small UAS (under 55 lbs) to fly within 27 months, establish six UAS test sites across the country, expediting access by public users (especially emergency responders), allow first responders to fly small UAS (sUAS) (under 2 kg) within 90 days if they meet certain requirements, and exempt model aircraft.

Many surveyors and mappers haven’t caught on to the fact that a new data collection technology for surveying and mapping is on the horizon (actually over the horizon). This bill ensures that we can grab onto it in the next three years.

Image: The Gatewing X100