A Look at the Integration of UAS into the National Airspace System
The FAA’s website reports there are nearly 1.7 million Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) or “drones” registered in the U.S. and projections indicate that by 2023 UAS registrations may grow up to 3 million. UAS are primarily recreational today but are increasingly being used for a multitude of commercial applications including photography, surveying, environmental and wildlife monitoring, and parcel delivery to name just a few. The rapid commercial demand for UAS is driving the need for UAS integration within the National Airspace System (NAS). While the FAA has made progress with the addition of Part 107 to 14 CFR, there are still many restrictions placed on the operation of UASs. Currently UAS cannot be operated over 400ft AGL, over people, beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), or at night without the operator applying for and receiving a certificate of authorization (COA) from the FAA. The operation of UASs over 55lbs and any operations outside of Part 107 are generally limited to public entities with the exception of some operators receiving approval to operate UASs under Parts 135, 137, and 91.
The FAA’s temporary strategy for dealing with the hazard of UASs thus far has been one of attempted segregation as opposed to integration. However, projected growth and demand for UAS application commercially requires a scalable traffic management solution for the integration of these aircraft into the NAS.
What is the FAA currently doing to Integrate UAS to the NAS?
The FAA is collaborating with the private sector under the FAA UAS Data Exchange program to facilitate the sharing of airspace data between government and private sector. The most notable outcome of this collaboration has been Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) which directly supports the safe use of UAS in controlled airspace at or below 400 feet AGL. LAANC provides approved industry software providers access to airspace data which can be accessed by drone pilots to provide awareness of where UAS can or cannot be flown. The LAANC program also automates the COA request and approval process and provides ATC with visibility into when and where drones are operating. While LAANC is a tremendous improvement for strategic deconfliction there is still a need to address tactical inflight deconfliction or detect and avoid (DAA) as well as identification of UAS.
In December of 2019, the FAA released a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) for Remote ID. The Remote ID rule would build on the foundation of LAANC by requiring that UASs broadcast (or make available upon interrogation) such information as identity, location and altitude. Remote ID would close many of the gaps associated with UAS being operated BVLOS by ensuring that law enforcement and Federal security agencies could track and follow-up with the owner of any UAS being operated in an unsafe manner. Both LAANC and Remote ID are just some of the first steps in a larger more comprehensive effort between the FAA, NASA and industry to develop what has been called UAS Traffic Management or UTM. UTM will ultimately facilitate the traffic management ecosystem required for UAS to be operated in large numbers BVLOS. The FAA expects that UTM capabilities will be implemented incrementally over the next several years.
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