UAS Operations in the National Air Space (NAS)

By Bruce A. Seibert, Cofounder/Business Development Manager

ASSIST Aviation Solutions is fully committed to being completely knowledgeable on all UAS technologies, domestic deployments, and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) policies and regulations pertaining to the operation of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in the National Air Space (NAS). We can provide our clients and prospects who are currently considering the purchase and operation of UAS with the information and professional guidance that will help them make well-informed decisions regarding UAS operation and deployment.

The mission of the FAA is to maintain and preserve the safety of the flying public in the National Air Space, as well as of the general population over whom we fly. In 2011, the FAA published its plan for the modernization of the air navigation and air traffic control system. The plan documents includes how the FAA plans to adjust its procedures, rules and regulations to accept new technologies into the NAS and make the system more efficient. See “FAA NextGen Business Plan 2012; Pp 10-11on Core Initiative: Unmanned Aircraft Systems (069-110)”. View that plan here:

The Department of Defense previously produced its own roadmap in 2005 for the use of UAS through the year 2030. That roadmap presents the various systems available, from “micro drones” to the high-altitude, intercontinental Global Hawk that is the size of a Boeing 737. It also describes the technology and its uses as envisioned through the year 2030 and the potential theaters of deployment, both at home for homeland security and outside the United States. View that roadmap here:

The competition to produce UAS for the government has resulted in a proliferation of hundreds of manufacturers who also hope to cash in on the domestic market when it comes on line. There are literally thousands of uses for sensor-equipped “drones.”

The following topics must be included during any consideration to employ UAS in the NAS:

1.  The U.S. Congress’ mandate to the FAA for UAS integration in the NAS

FAA MANDATE: Congress mandated the FAA to establish federal regulations for operational integration of UAS into the National Air Space by 09/30/2015. Rule changes will be dependent upon technological advances and persistent safety considerations.

2.  Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (COAs) for UAS use in the NAS

In a report to Congress in July 2012, the FAA stated that Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (COAs) to operate in the National Air Space would continue to be issued to federal, state and local authorities on a case by case basis for a defined airspace and limited duration based upon the nature of the request. Research & development by DoD contractors and academic institutions would also receive COAs for operations in remote and restricted airspace and Military Operations Areas (MOAs) for development purposes.

Under the FAA Reauthorization Bill, the agency must define a way to expedite the COA process within 90 days of its enactment on May 14, 2012 (due August 13, 2012). All non-governmental UAS operators must operate under a COA (also issued on a case by case basis) in the EXPERIMENTAL category, below 400 feet above ground level, no closer than 5 miles to the nearest airport, and within line of sight of the operator. (An experimental classification precludes aircraft from any use for compensation or hire.) This also applies to recreational UAS users (FAA Advisory Circular [AC] 91-57). However, later in 2012, the FAA expects to release a proposed rule that will establish policies, procedures and standards for a wide spectrum of UAS users in the small UAS community.

3.  The Law Enforcement (LE) community’s need for aerial surveillance capabilities

 Law enforcement entities have a legitimate need for aerial surveillance when the lives and property of citizens are threatened. From aerial traffic monitoring and enforcement to missing person searches, fugitive tracking or detection of contraband and other illegal activities, aerial surveillance is a cost-effective and efficient means of providing a safe environment for citizens and law enforcement personnel.

4. Privacy/Constitutional objections to their use under the IVth Amendment

Graham Warwick and Jen DiMascio have reported in “Private Eyes” in the August 6, 2012, edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology (p. 49) that “Already, Congress has moved to place limits on government use of UAS. An amendment by Rep. Frank LoBiono (R-N.J.) in the 2013 defense authorization bill prohibits funding for UAS missions that contravene the Constitution’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure (IVth Amendment).”

5. Anti-UAS legislation in Congress

Four states are moving to ban the use of UAS by government and law enforcement without a warrant. Information gathered for commercial purposes without the knowledge of property owners would also be banned under “The Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act of 2012.” View this legislation here:

6. Prohibition by the FAA of UAS for commercial operations in the NAS


 7. Cost controversy: manned vs. unmanned aerial camera platforms

COST:  The cost of UAS operation is often assumed to be lower than that of manned aircraft to individual police departments. The experience of the Arlington, Texas, Police Department tells a different story. Lt. Chad Gann of that department bought two $100,000 UAS for the department rather than a $2,000,000 helicopter on the assumption of $1500/hrs. of operation for the helicopter versus $50/hr for the UAS. He has found it difficult to obtain a COA from the FAA unless there exists a “…loss of life or potential loss of life” (also described in the same AWST article, p.50). Months passed before they received a COA. According to Lt. Gann, “To date, we have only had (and missed) one opportunity to use the [UAS] for an operational mission…” Believing they were saving money, they spent $200,000 on UAS and operator training without receiving the expected benefits.

A more cost-effective and responsive solution exists to meet the needs for aerial imagery. A manned aerial asset can be provided under a performance contract on an as-needed basis without the requirement to obtain a COA and without the large investment for department-owned aerial equipment. An aircraft with a surveillance camera and crew can be provided that has real-time, full motion EO/IR aerial imagery capabilities for significantly less than the cost cited by Lt. Gann for a police helicopter or an investment in a major capital asset like a UAS and the associated operator training. When police (or fire) departments pool costs through a mutual aid association, aerial assets can be made available to individual departments for only a few hundred dollars a year. Two hundred thousand dollars would go a long way for those services if there are only a few occasions annually when aerial assets are needed.

8. Technological vulnerabilities (spoofing) of GPS-guided navigation systems

VULNERABILITY: UAS are vulnerable to sabotage by a process called “spoofing.”  This was demonstrated to the military at White Sands Missile Range when control of an $80,000 helicopter UAS was disrupted by hacking GPS signals to the craft from more than half a mile away, also reported in “Unworthy Utility?” by Graham Warwick and Jen DiMascio (Aviation Week & Space Technology, August 6, 2012, p. 51). This vulnerability has been demonstrated repeatedly in various conditions with a variety of UAS aircraft. The components for interrupting GPS signals for control of UAS can be purchased at any electronics store.

9. Proposal to transfer operational authority for UAS in the NAS from FAA control to a new division of the Department of Homeland Security

In the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, in Conroe, Texas, Chief Deputy William McDaniel stated, “If UAV (UAS) operations remain under the oversight of the FAA, domestic UAS operations will continue to be severely hampered or limited to the point of being useless(“Private Eyes,” AWST, August 6, 2012, p. 50). McDaniels argued that it would be appropriate for the Office of State and Local Law Enforcement in the Department of Homeland Security to be tasked with federal oversight of UAS operations.

But unlike the FAA, DHS is not charged with the safety of the NAS, and quite often, law enforcement officials are not conversant on aviation matters outside their own narrow purview. It is highly unlikely that the FAA would relinquish its role in preserving the safety of the National Air Space.

For more information, contact Bruce Seibert, co-founder, Business Development  Manager: 603-219-0922, x106

UAVs/Drones in the News:

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