..we are being prepared for the day, not very far off, when we will be sharing the skies with Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), also known as drones or remotely piloted vehicles (RPV's)...FAA Reauthorization Act (Public Law 112-95), that day is upon us. There are some who are evincing surprise at the developments in this arena. I can only surmise that they have of late been asleep.
Section 332 et seq. of P.L. 112-95 has quite a lot to say on the topic of Unmanned Aircraft Systems. To begin with, the Law requires that on or before the 14th of May of this year the Secretary of Transportation must enter into agreements with "appropriate governmental agencies" that streamline the issuance of waivers or authorizations to operate "public unmanned aircraft systems" in the National Airspace System [P.L. 112-95 Sec. 334 (c)(1)].
The contemplated agreements must provide for expedited review, approval action within 60 business days, and expedited appeal in the event of disapproval. These agreements will, further, permit one-time approval of "similar operations carried out during a fixed period", and allow a "government public safety agency" to operate UAS's weighing up to 2 kg. within the operator's line of sight, up to 400 feet AGL during daylight conditions in uncontrolled airspace outside of 5 statute miles from any airport, heliport, etc.
One suspects that after about mid-August, anyone that flies low in uncontrolled airspace (agricultural applicators? pipeline patrols? balloonists? transiting helicopters?) is going to need to keep a sharp lookout for little 4 pound camera carriers buzzing around to help the constables search for marijuana patches, meth labs and undocumented immigrants. Will it be the responsibility of the operators of these devices to "see-and-avoid" other traffic? That would seem to be a rule-making matter,but the expedited schedule allows little time for orderly rule-making.
Once that little piece of business is under control, P.L. 112-95 gives the Administrator of the FAA until the 12th of August to set up a program of, at most, five years duration, that will establish six "test ranges" for the integration of UAS's into the National Airspace System (NAS) [P.L. 112-95 Sec. 332 (c)(1) et seq.]. In selecting locations for the test ranges, the Administrator is required to consider "geographic and climatic diversity", "ground infrastructure and research needs", the views of NASA and DoD, and no doubt (though not explicitly required), the location of the districts represented by the relevant congressional committee chairs.
The program's goals are fairly ambitious:
- To "safely designate airspace" for integrated manned and UAS operations;
- To "develop certification standards and air traffic requirements" for UAS's;
- To "coordinate and leverage" NASA and Dod resources;
- To "address both civil and public" UAS's;
- To coordinate with NextGen;
- To verify the safety of UAS's and related navigation procedures before integration into the NAS.
With these pilot projects established, no doubt to the financial pleasure of the usual suspects among DoT contractors, the cognizant managers will need to hustle to comply with the next requirement of P.L. 112-95. The act gives the Secretary until November 10th of this year to develop a "comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil [UAS's] into the [NAS]." This plan is to be formulated "in consultation with representatives of the aviation industry, Federal agencies that employ [UAS] technology in the [NAS], and the [UAS] industry." [P.L. 112-95 Sec. 332 (a)(1) et seq.] (One wonders whether the GA community will have a seat at that table.)
The Act is fairly explicit on what it expects this "comprehensive plan" to comprehend, among other things (emphasis added):
- The anticipated rulemaking that will (i) define operating and certification standards for civil UAS's, (ii) ensure that UAS's incorporate "sense-and-avoid" capability, (iii) establish standards (including registration and licensing) for operators and pilots of UAS's;
- To project methods to enhance the technologies needed to achieve safe and routine operation of UAS's in the NAS;
- To recommend a phased-in approach to the integration of civil UAS's in the NAS;
- To project a timeline for this phased-in approach;
The Act requires that the integration plan be forwarded to congress within a year (i.e., by February 14th, 2013), and that also by that date "the Secretary shall approve and make available in print and on the Administration’s Internet Web site a 5-year roadmap for the introduction of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system...," said roadmap to be updated annually.
And, finally, the Act requires [P.L. 112-95 Sec. 332 (b)] that:
- "not later than 18 months after the date on which the (integration) plan...is submitted (i.e., at latest, by August, 2014)...the Secretary shall publish...a final rule on small (i.e., 25 kg or less) unmanned aircraft systems that will allow for civil operation of such systems in the national airspace system...",and;
- "a notice of proposed rulemaking to implement the recommendations of the (implementation) plan (presumably to encompass UAS's other than "small")...with the final rule to be published not later than 16 months after the date of publication of the notice (i.e., not later than December, 2015)."
- May, 2012: Agreements with government agencies on waiver procedures for operating public UAS's (of max. wt. 2 kg) in the NAS;
- August, 2012: Likely first operations of public UAS's in the NAS under waivers;
- August, 2012: Establish "test ranges" for development of UAS technologies and methods needed for integration;
- February, 2013: UAS Integration Plan due to Congress; Roadmap published in print and on-line;
- August, 2014: Deadline for final rule for civil operation of "small" (i.e., 25 kg.) UAS's in the NAS.
- December, 2015: Deadline for final rule for civil operation of all UAS's in the NAS.