Drones in the U.S. National Airspace System*

By Rachel Ehrenfeld
Friday, February 20th, 2015 @ 5:16AM

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Earlier this week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proposed rules on drones (unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

For example, the proposed rule would require that an operator maintain visual line of sight of a small UAS. Or, whether the rules should allow operations beyond line of sight, and if so, what the appropriate limits should be. Though, the FAA does not say, at this stage, what measures will be taken to enforce the new rules.

An individual actually flying a small UAS would be labeled an “operator.” An operator would have to be at least 17 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test, and then obtain an FAA UAS operator certificate. But, a small UAS operator would not require any further private pilot certifications.

The new rules also suggests operating limitations designed to reduce risks to other aircraft and people and property on the ground:

While the list of the proposed rules sounds reasonable, how would the Agency manage to enforce them of hundreds of thousands different size drones?

For example, “a small UAS operator must always see and avoid manned aircraft. If there is a risk of collision, the UAS operator must be the first to maneuver away.”Or, the operator must discontinue the flight when continuing would pose a hazard to other aircraft, people or property.” – That’s calling for a lot of good will and personal responsibility, doesn’t it?

More:  A small UAS operator must assess weather conditions, airspace restrictions, and the location of people to lessen risks if he or she loses control of the UAS.. He/she may not fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight.; – Flights should be limited to 500 feet altitude and no faster than 100 mph. – Operators must stay out of airport flight paths and restricted airspace areas, and obey any FAA Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs), A regulation Senator Schumer has been advocating for. .

Finally, the proposed rule keeps the existing prohibition against operating in a careless or reckless manner. It also would bar an operator from permitting any object to be dropped from the UAS.

However, there are no limitation on what the drones can and cannot carry. How about carrying payloads such jamming devise that can parallelize the areas in which they fly? What about carrying messages across the borders? Drugs?vaporized bacteria? There are unlimited opportunities for harm, which this proposal overlooks. It would be interesting to whether these issues will be addressed tin the proposals next round.

More about Drones in the U.S. National Airspace System: A Safety and Security Assessment, by Major Stephen Maddox & Captain David Stuckenberg.* Here are excerpts from the  forthcoming HARVARD LAW NATIONAL SECURITY JOURNAL:


Since 9/11, our government has made extensive investments to safeguard citizens, cherished monuments, critical infrastructure and key government installations. Unfortunately, many safeguards are easily bypassed by overflight. On January 26th of this year, a small drone bypassed the fences and radar protecting the White House and crashed unceremoniously onto the south lawn.[i] Back in 2012, Congressman Michael McCaul stated: “Now is the time to ensure these vulnerabilities are mitigated to protect our aviation system as the use of UAS (unmanned aircraft systems or “drones”) continues to grow.”[ii] Despite his warning, three primary problems exist for UAS as they enter our national airspace: (1) inadequate safety systems, (2) inadequate statutes, and (3) incomplete threat analyses.


The National Airspace System (NAS) is a highly integrated and complex network designed to provide safe and reliable air transportation throughout the United States with an average of 50,000 [manned] flights a day.[iii] In a single month of 2014, domestic airlines transported more than 66.4 million passengers, or one fifth of the U.S. population.[iv] The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that air traffic will increase one percent per year for the next 21 years.[v]

In spite of this modest growth projection, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (henceforth the Reform Act) to “improve aviation safety and capacity.”[vi] While such reforms are laudable, nested within the Reform Act’s 300 pages is a small statutory order that raises major concerns. The Act stipulates that the Secretary of Transportation “shall develop a comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the national airspace system”[vii] by September 30, 2015.[viii]

Drone integration is problematic because of regulatory impediments on their operations and the resultant political climate. All drone operations in the NAS are restricted to below 400 feet above ground level or Special Use Airspaces (SUAs) for government testing and training. Access to airspace and flight corridors outside SUAs is only granted through a special FAA permit known as a Certificate of Authorization or Waiver (COA).[ix] These operational restrictions exist because of the hazards drones pose to manned aircraft and the public.

In 2010, the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a leading robotics industry lobby, published a report[x], [xi] geared toward AUVSI’s legislative goal of increasing “[a]irspace access . . . to ensure that obstacles to advancing and fielding unmanned systems and robotics are removed.”[xii] The report argued that the U.S. economy would benefit enormously if drones had access to the NAS. AUVSI also warned that a failure to integrate UAS would impede military readiness by limiting the Department of Defense’s ability to stay at the forefront of new technology, and negatively impact jobs and the aviation industry.[xiii] Unfortunately, by creating a requirement for drone integration, Congress failed to examine many of the latent safety and security issues surrounding domestic use of UAS.


[i] Scmidt, Michael and Shear, Mishael. “A Drone, Too Small for Radar to Detect, Rattles the White House,” New York Times, January 26, 2015,  Author’s note: the text reads as follows: A White House radar system designed to detect flying objects like planes, missiles and large drones failed to pick up a small drone that crashed into a tree on the South Lawn early Monday morning, according to law enforcement officials. The crash raised questions about whether the Secret Service could bring down a similar object if it endangered President Obama.

[ii] McCaul, Michael. “Using Unmanned Aerial Systems Within the Homeland: Security Game Changer?” Address, Statement of Chairman Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management, Washington, D.C., July 19, 2012. Author’s note: transcript available at: http://homeland.house.gov/sites/homeland.house.gov/files/07-19-12%20McCaul%20Open.pdf

[iii] Jones, Tammy, and Paul Takemoto. “Fact Sheet.” http://www.faa.gov/news/press_releases/news_story.cfm?newsId=12903 (accessed June 28, 2014).

[iv] U.S. Department of Transportation. “March 2014 U.S. Airline Traffic Data | Bureau of Transportation Statistics.” March 2014 U.S. Airline Traffic Data | Bureau of Transportation Statistics. http://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/press_releases/bts028_14 (accessed June 28, 2014). Author’s note: the text reads as follows: 15,461 air traffic controllers handle 50,000 flights a day.”

[v] Price, Henry. “Fact Sheet – FAA Forecast–Fiscal Years 2014-34.” http://www.faa.gov/news/fact_sheets/news_story.cfm?newsId=15934 (accessed June 28, 2014).

[vi] “Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” In FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. ed. Washington D.C. : Government Publication Office, 2012.. [available at: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CRPT-112hrpt381/pdf/CRPT-112hrpt381.pdf ] Author’s note: the text reads as follows: “The committee of conference on the disagreeing votes of the two Houses on the amendment of the Senate to the bill (H.R. 658), to amend title 49, United States Code, to authorize appropriations for the Federal Aviation Administration for fiscal years 2011 through 2014, to streamline programs, create efficiencies, reduce waste, and improve aviation safety and capacity…”

[vii] Ibid. Comprehensive Plan. Author’s note: the text reads as follows: “Not later than 270 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Transportation, in consultation with representatives of the aviation industry, Federal agencies that employ unmanned aircraft systems technology in the national airspace system, and the unmanned aircraft systems industry, shall develop a comprehensive plan to safely accelerate the integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system.”

[viii] Ibid. Deadline. Author’s note: the text reads as follows: “The plan required under paragraph (1) shall provide for the safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system as soon as practicable, but not later than September 30, 2015.”

[ix] Federal Aviation Administration . “Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (COA).” Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). http://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/ato/service_units/systemops/aaim/organizations/uas/coa/ (accessed July 12, 2014). Author’s note: the text reads as follows: “COA is an authorization issued by the Air Traffic Organization to a public operator for a specific UA activity. After a complete application is submitted, FAA conducts a comprehensive operational and technical review. If necessary, provisions or limitations may be imposed as part of the approval to ensure the UA[Vs] can operate safely with other airspace users.”

[x] AUVSI. “About Us.” – Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. http://www.auvsi.org/home/aboutus (accessed July 10, 2014). Author’s note: the text reads as follows: “The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International is the world’s largest non-profit organization devoted exclusively to advancing the unmanned systems and robotics community. Serving more than 7,500 members from government organizations, industry and academia, AUVSI is committed to fostering, developing, and promoting unmanned systems and robotic technologies.”
Author’s Note: link updated to http://www.auvsi.org/new-item (22 Jan, 2014)

[xi] AUVSI. “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Integration into the National Air Space System: An Assessment of the Impact of Job Creation in the Aerospace Industry.” http://rmgsc.cr.usgs.gov/uas/pdf/AUVSI/0510JobsReport.pdf (accessed July 8, 2014).

[xii] AUVSI. “Advocacy.” – Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. http://www.auvsi.org/advocacy (accessed July 10, 2014). Author’s note: the text reads as follows: “On behalf of our membership we are committed to shaping global policy by advocating on behalf of the unmanned systems and robotics community, monitoring legislation and assessing the global impact of the industry to ensure that obstacles to advancing and fielding unmanned systems and robotics are removed. AUVSI’s current legislative initiatives include: Airspace Access.”

[xiii] AUVSI. “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Integration in the National Air Space System: An Assessment of the Impact of Job Creation in the Aerospace Industry.” http://rmgsc.cr.usgs.gov/uas/pdf/AUVSI/0510JobsReport.pdf (accessed July 8, 2014). Author’s note: the text reads as follows: “The economic impact analysis outlined in this report assumes a steady progression in UAS access to unrestricted airspace. If UAS integration efforts result in the uninhibited operation of all classes of UAS in the NAS over the next 5 years, positive economic benefits will result and UAS employment opportunities will develop sooner than expected. Alternatively, if efforts to integrate UAS into the NAS are stalled, serious repercussions will result, the following: Smaller, UAS-centric companies will struggle to stay in business; end users, especially those in the public safety field, will miss the opportunity to employ a technology with proven life-saving benefits; the military will be challenged to maintain the readiness levels of UAS operators; the U.S. will risk being surpassed in the global UAS space in terms of technology development; and the U.S. aerospace industry will miss an opportunity for economic growth at a time when many sectors are declining. New job growth will be stifled and current jobs in the UAS industry could be lost. The repercussions associated with failed UAS integration efforts will negatively impact the UAS community for years to come.”

* Department of Defense disclaimer: “The opinions and views expressed in this paper are those of the authors alone and do not represent the views of the DoD, USAF, or U.S. Government.


Categories: ACD/EWI Blog, Aviation Security, Cyber, Cyber security, CyberAttacks, DoD, Drones