FAA, Industry Prepare Standards For Unmanned Aircraft Systems

The preferred term at this juncture is not simply "unmanned aircraft," but "unmanned aircraft systems" (UAS), because there's so much more than just the aircraft.


Although unmanned aircraft (UA) are still largely confined to experimental uses in unpopulated areas of the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is preparing for the day when UA will share the National Airspace System (NAS) with commercial flights. But that date still appears to be some years away.

FAA's public-private advisory body, RTCA Inc., created Special Committee (SC) 203 in October 2004 to tackle the arduous job of developing UA standards. Specifically, FAA tasked SC-203 with developing standards for UA in two operational areas that pose the greatest safety concerns: 1) detect, sense and avoid; and 2) command, control and communications. These new standards will allow manufacturers to develop the new technology for these craft.

As Nicholas Sabatini, FAA's associate administrator for aviation safety, told the House Aviation Subcommittee at the end of March, this as-yet-to-be- developed technology is the "missing link" that "prevents these aircraft from getting unrestricted access to the NAS.

Accomplishing the necessary modeling and simulation just to develop standards could take another 4-5 years, agency staff tells Air Safety Week.

While FAA has asked the SC-203 to deliver "something" by December 2007, developing the standards is proving to be far more difficult than what was originally thought, says SC 203 Co-Chairman Randy Kenagy, who also is the senior director of advanced technology for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (ALPA).

Before even trying to figure out how make a detect-and-avoid system work, committee members had to start on some basics -- like describing and documenting what an unmanned aircraft is, and doing the same for their various aircraft systems, Kenagy tells Air Safety Week.

Also, the preferred term at this juncture is not simply "unmanned aircraft," Kenagy explains, but "unmanned aircraft systems" (UAS), because there's so much more than just the aircraft, such as all the ground-based operations. Then again, the committee's job isn't made any easier by the fact that a UA can be as big as a Boeing 737 or so small that it fits into the palm of your hand.

But most of today's operating UAs -- aside from hobbyists' model airplanes -- are deployed by U.S. government agencies and fall somewhere in the middle of those two size extremes. A typical craft is the Predator-B, built by General Atomics, which is roughly the size of a Beechcraft King Air. The Predator-B weighs 10,000 lbs, flies up to a ceiling of about 40,000 ft., and has an average speed of about 200 knots or less.

In the past two years, FAA has issued more than 50 certificates of authorization (COAs) to other government agencies to operate these craft. Sabatini testified that the agency expects a "record number" of new COAs this year.

UAs certainly have become a target of "robust funding," says market analyst Darren Corbiere with Frost and Sullivan. While Congress is starting to get interested in their potential in civil aviation, UAs already "are a very good answer to many of the questions that have arisen about intelligence." Thus many UAs operate at the behest of the Department of Defense for applications in Iraq and other overseas locations, and for other agencies with related interests in domestic surveillance and reconnaissance, such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The list of federal agencies also includes those with non-defense and non-security mandates, such as the Department of the Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as a range of local government agencies, Sabatini says.

"You name it, it's being thought of," an FAA spokesman tells Air Safety Week. "Right now, we are seeing UAs being considered for law enforcement surveillance, meteorological conditions studies, fire fighting, disaster relief, border enforcement, etc."

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