FAA Revises Rules Governing Unmanned Aircraft Systems in National Airspace

Michael P. Truman

Revised rules from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in national airspace streamline the approval process and thereby expand opportunities for the Army to fly UAS.

Federal, state, and local government entities must obtain an FAA Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) before flying UAS in national airspace. In a Jan. 13 memorandum accompanying Army Directive 2012-02, Supplemental Policy for Operations of Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the National Airspace System (http://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/pdf/ad2012_02.pdf), Secretary of the Army John McHugh stated, “The Army’s unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) represent emerging technology that requires access to the National Airspace System. The Army intends to use UAS for warfighter training and directed mission support.”

The revised rules, issued May 14, are in response to Public Law 112–95 (http://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/reauthorization/media/PLAW-112publ95%5B1%5D.pdf) signed by President Obama on Feb. 14, requiring the FAA to develop a blueprint to safely integrate UAS in the skies above the United States by 2015.


Two newly assembled Gray Eagle UAS sit on the tarmac at Forward Operating Base Shank in Logar province, Afghanistan, April 12. (U.S Army photo by SGT Ken Scar, 7th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

In 2009, the FAA, NASA, and the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security formed a UAS Executive Committee to address UAS integration issues. The committee established a working group that developed suggestions to expedite the COA process. The recommendations implemented by the FAA include establishing metrics for tracking COAs throughout the process and improving the on-time rate for granting an authorization.

The agency also developed an automated, Web-based process to streamline steps toward approval and ensure that a COA application is complete and ready for review. The agency already has expedited procedures to grant one-time COAs for time-sensitive emergency missions such as disaster relief and humanitarian efforts. Starting on March 29, the FAA introduced another improvement by changing the duration of authorization from the current 12-month period to 24 months.

If the FAA disapproves a COA, the agency quickly addresses questions from the applicant and tries to provide alternate solutions that will lead to approval.

The FAA’s sole mission in integrating UAS is safety. FAA regulations require, in part, that “vigilance shall be maintained by each person operating an aircraft so as to see and avoid other aircraft.” In theater, UAS have collided with other aircraft, and two large UAS have crashed domestically. In 2006, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Predator B crashed in the Arizona desert, and more recently, on June 11, a Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk went down into a marsh in southern Maryland.


PFC Christopher Sims, a Combat Engineer with the 449th Engineer Company, deploys a UAS at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, CA, March 20. The Puma, equipped with infrared cameras, is capable of flying ahead of route clearance patrols to identify potential threats. (U.S Army photo by SPC Devin Wood, 412th Theater Engineer Command)

On June 4-8 and June 18-22, the Army demonstrated its Ground Based Sense and Avoid (GBSAA) System at Dugway Proving Ground, UT. The system uses earthbound radar to scan the skies for other aircraft, sending remote commands to a UAS in need of course corrections. The demonstrations illustrated GBSAA’s capabilities in multiple national airspace scenarios, said Viva Austin, Product Director for Unmanned Systems Airspace Integration Concepts (PD USAIC) in Program Executive Office Aviation. “Both the GBSAA test bed and the full system/concept demonstration turned out to be more successful than we could have hoped for,” Austin said.

Bloomberg News has estimated that the UAS industry is worth nearly $6 billion and that by 2021, the amount could almost double with expansion into the civilian sector. With many of the UAS returning from theater in coming years after providing invaluable support in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army interest in UAS technology remains strong.

Making GBSAA work to the FAA’s satisfaction is a crucial step for the Army to fly UAS routinely in national airspace. According to Austin, the PD USAIC is ready to ask the Directorate of Aviation Engineering within the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development, and Engineering Center to certify the GBSAA. After receiving certification, the next step would be applying for the FAA waiver, she said. “Once this system is certified, I think we have cleared a major hurdle. I think we’re there.”


  • MICHAEL P. TRUMAN provides contract support to the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center through SAIC. He holds a B.A. in English from the University of North Florida and has attended the M.F.A. Program at George Mason University. He has worked in various communications capacities at the Missile Defense Agency; the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, Test Resource Management Center; the Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation; and the Business Transformation Agency.