In keeping with our mission of advocacy, education, safety, and fighting to keep general aviation accessible, AOPA is focusing a great deal of attention on the efforts to promote the safe integration and operation of unmanned aircraft within the National Airspace System (NAS).
General aviation has an excellent safety record, with an estimated 500,000 pilots flying approximately 200,000 aircraft as part of an industry that supports a total annual economic output of $219 billion in the United States. Over the last several decades, the total accident rate has decreased by more than 85%, down to just seven accidents per 100,000 flight hours.
Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) are now a rapidly growing and important part of general aviation. Whether performing a search and rescue operation for a government agency, helping a commercial farmer improve crop yields through precision agriculture, or enjoyed as a personal hobby, UAS are yet another effective, efficient, and affordable way to enjoy the benefits of aviation. The value of these benefits is reflected by the more than 100,000 jobs and $82 billion in economic impact estimated to be created within the first 10 years of UAS operations in the NAS.
Notwithstanding their potential benefits, UAS must be integrated into the NAS in a manner that maintains the level of safety to people and property in the air and on the ground that general aviation currently provides. To achieve this goal, AOPA is preparing an education and self-certification program that will ensure an appropriate level of aeronautical knowledge among all UAS operators. Guided by the understanding that many factors must be considered when determining how to best maintain the safety of the NAS, AOPA is also assessing the merit of technological and regulatory proposals from the government and industry.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is tasked with overseeing the integration of UAS, and has currently applied rules or guidelines to UAS operations based upon the user and the intended purpose of the flight, rather than the type of UAS involved. As a result, identical UAS may be subject to different rules or guidelines depending on whether they are operated by a public entity, commercial operator, or a hobby/recreational user.
Currently, UAS operated by public entities such as publicly funded universities, law enforcement, and other government agencies can qualify as "public aircraft" that are exempt from certain Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) that would otherwise prohibit UAS operations. Therefore, these public users may receive an approval from the FAA called a "Certificate of Authorization" (COA). A COA makes local air traffic control (ATC) facilities aware of UAS operations, allows ATC coordination, and also requires the operator to request a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) to alert other users of the NAS to the UAS activities being conducted. The FAA reviews each COA application on a case-by-case basis, imposing conditions or limitations as necessary to ensure safe operation of the unmanned aircraft.
For those seeking to operate UAS in furtherance of or incidental to a business, a "Section 333" Grant of Exemption as well as a COA must be obtained, at least until the FAA’s proposed regulations governing commercial UAS are finalized. Unlike a COA, which coordinates airspace and ATC, a Grant of Exemption allows the operation of a UAS that may not meet the requirements of the FARs, many of which were set forth when manned aircraft were the customary users of the NAS.
To ensure safe commercial UAS operations, each Grant of Exemption includes strict operating conditions and limitations, typically permitting operation of UAS that weigh less than 55 pounds, during daytime visual meteorological conditions under visual flight rules, at or below 400 feet AGL, within visual line of sight of the pilot in command (PIC), who must hold at least a recreational or sport pilot certificate. Commercial UAS operators must keep their unmanned aircraft clear of and give way to all manned aviation operations and activities at all times, and conduct flight operations at least 500 feet from all nonparticipating persons, vessels, vehicles, and structures unless a few exceptions are met. To date, more than 1,300 Grants of Exemption have been issued by the FAA, and hundreds more applications remain pending.
Unlike public use or commercial operators, those using UAS solely for hobby or recreational purposes are not subject to FAA approval before taking flight. However, these users must meet certain statutory requirements and are subject to the FAA’s model aircraft guidelines. With limited exceptions, these requirements mandate that hobby or recreational users limit their unmanned aircraft to a weight of 55 pounds or less, operate in accordance with a set of community-based safety standards, and not fly within 5 miles of an airport. FAA guidelines encourage hobby or recreational users to fly their unmanned aircraft no higher than 400 feet AGL. As required by statute, hobby and recreational users must keep their unmanned aircraft within line of sight, not interfere with any manned aircraft, and give way to any manned aircraft.
While public use and commercial UAS are regulated by existing FARs, a recent law provides that the FAA cannot set forth any new regulations regulating hobby or recreational UAS. Nevertheless, the same law also provides that the FAA may pursue enforcement action against any hobby or recreational users who endanger the safety of the NAS. Whether the FAA will limit these types of enforcement actions to incidents such as airspace violations or careless and reckless operation of hobby and recreational UAS remains to be seen.
Whether an unmanned aircraft is flown for a public use, a commercial operation, or a hobby/recreational use, can also have a practical impact on the ability of the FAA to enforce the regulations or statutory requirements that may apply to the UAS operation. As public use and commercial UAS are not exempt from aircraft registration or marking requirements, these UAS must be marked with an N-number which allows for identification of the unmanned aircraft’s registered owner. In contrast, no registration or N-number marking is required for hobby or recreational UAS.
As an organization representing the freedom of flight for all users of the NAS, AOPA believes that safely including UAS operations within the NAS can be achieved by ensuring all users have an appropriate level of aeronautical knowledge and are using technology to minimize safety risks. With safety as our first priority, AOPA is developing an education and self-certification program for UAS operators, while also supporting ongoing efforts by the FAA and the aviation community to integrate UAS into the NAS. To address the safety of commercial UAS operations, AOPA submitted comments to the FAA regarding the agency’s proposed rules for small commercial UAS operations. The FAA should expedite its consideration of the comments it received on these proposed rules, and issue final rules for publication.
Hobby and recreational users of UAS should be provided clear, comprehensive operational guidelines, as well as a community-based educational program concerning the safe operation of an unmanned aircraft in the NAS. As many people are likely to be introduced to aviation through building or operating a UAS, they may be unfamiliar with the categories of airspace and other important aeronautical information.
To help educate these recreational and hobby users of UAS about operating safely in the NAS, AOPA is developing an education and self-certification program for UAS operators, and has officially signed on to support the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) "Know Before You Fly" campaign.
As numerous factors contribute to safe operations in the NAS, AOPA is evaluating the merit of government and industry proposals concerning UAS, many of which offer a wide range of technological and regulatory measures. Specifically, AOPA is very interested in vehicle registration and tracking, airspace design, and low altitude (500 feet and below) UAS traffic management. As technology advances, automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) transceivers may become a lightweight and affordable way to provide vehicle separation between manned aircraft and UAS. Likewise, more UAS manufacturers may help limit airspace incursions by adding geo-fencing features to their flight management software, restricting unmanned aircraft from entering certain airspace by creating a geographical boundary based upon GPS or radio frequency identification.
With resources such as the Air Safety Institute and our dedicated government affairs team, AOPA is exploring additional ways to promote a future of general aviation where manned aircraft and UAS safely operate together in the NAS.