Feature: UAS and the FAA

What exactly is the current legal state of using UAS in the United States for surveyors versus hobbyists? What’s the big deal about the National Airspace System? What should surveyors do to prepare to use UAS?

Few topics in the geospatial community are as fraught with misunderstanding and misinformation as the topic of unmanned aerial systems (UAS). The lack of specific UAS regulations, combined with a myriad of Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) governing manned aircraft and U.S. airspace, has led the UAS user community to make assumptions and piecemeal together a narrative about using UAS that is at odds with the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) policy.

Notwithstanding the pending federal court case on UAS use at the time of writing this, the FAA issued a variety of policy statements intended to clarify their regulations on policy to the UAS community.  It’s not pretty, but from the FAA’s standpoint, the policy is clear.  At question by some is that policy’s authority.

May_2014_07The FAA mission statement is, “to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.” That’s pretty vague, but out of that vagueness comes many specific regulations to help the FAA carry out that mission. 

When taken out of this mission statement context, some individual regulations may seem bizarre or ridiculous. In context, however, when lives and property are at stake, most of the regulations make a lot of sense. And, unmanned aerial systems are subject to regulation by the FAA and all their regulatory authority.  

May_2014_08How does this affect the general land surveyor or other geospatial professionals who would like to incorporate UAS into their portfolio of tools and service offerings?  There are no differences between geospatial applications and other UAS applications such as agriculture, photojournalism, private security, and many others.

The FAA has released their “Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the National Airspace (NAS) Roadmap.”  This 74-page document outlines all of the issues, challenges, and potential solutions required to integrate civil use of UAS in our National Airspace System.

This article addresses questions land surveyors have about UAS and dispels some of the myths and bad information currently circulating.

What’s the difference between a UAS and a radio controlled (RC) plane/helicopter?

An RC aircraft is manually controlled by an operator with a radio transmitter.  Control requires constant visual contact with the aircraft by the operator.  Additionally, the radio control units are limited in range to a few hundred yards, which also limits their altitude above the ground.

Many of the UAS that are being developed for uses like geospatial applications fly a pre-programmed flight plan without any flight control necessary from the operator.  A pre-programmed flight plan allows the aircraft to fly much more accurately than if it were manually controlled. This is important for the consistent and accurate collection of aerial photos and lidar.  It also means the aircraft can easily be operated out of the visual range of the operator.  That makes it easer to cover larger areas but makes it more of a safety concern when you cannot visually verify what the aircraft is doing. Some UAS are manually controlled by pilots remotely from where the UAS is operating; this is common for military UAS applications.

Regardless of whether the flight control system is manual or pre-programmed, the real distinction for the FAA is what the systems are used for.  RC aircraft are currently designated by the FAA only for hobbyist and personal, research-type activities (i.e. flying for fun).  Even then, there are rules for the safe operation of these aircraft, which the FAA has basically left to the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA).  Beyond flying RCs for fun, the FAA heavily regulates the use of aircraft and airspace for commercial operations.

Recreational use of airspace by model aircraft is covered by FAA Advisory Circular 91-57 that limits operations to below 400 feet above ground level and away from populations, airports, and air traffic. In 2007, the FAA clarified that AC 91-57 applies to only “modelers” and specifically excludes individuals or companies flying model aircraft for business purposes.

In practical terms, this means that you cannot engage in a commercial aviation enterprise unless you are a commercial pilot and your aircraft adheres to commercial aircraft regulations.  When it comes to the FAA, there is no grey area! Despite recent well-publicized court cases regarding commercial use and RC craft, there has been no fundamental change to any of the regulations.  Could this change? Yes, but be assured if there were fundamental changes you would definitely hear about it. 

It is incorrect to state that there are no regulations regarding UAS?

Quite the contrary. UAS operation is not allowed by the FAA unless you have specific authority to do so.  Using any type of remote controlled or UAS aircraft for commercial activities is in violation of FAA regulations.  This includes all methods of trying to sidestep the regulation, such as: 

  • charging for the flight but not for the map,
  • charging for the map but not for the flight, and
  • including the flight or map as part of the ground work.

The FAA will look at the fact that you are a business (land surveyor, etc.) and you are flying a system used for gathering geospatial information. End of story.  It doesn’t matter whether you bought the UAS from a geospatial manufacturer such as Trimble or Leica or built it in your garage from scratch.

The FAA has the power to impose criminal and civil penalties and does so on a very frequent basis. Penalties can include jail time and very hefty fines.

While technically RC aircraft and UAS are very similar devices, it’s primarily their use that differentiates them in the eyes of the FAA.

Can I get a UAS for hobby activities?

UAS from geospatial manufacturers like Trimble, Leica, Sensefly, and any other advertised geospatial UAS system, are specifically designed for commercial applications (aerial mapping), for use by commercial entities (surveyors).  As such, the aircraft and its use currently fall under the commercial operations regulations of the FAA. 

Commercial UAS manufacturers have special airworthiness certificates (SAC) that allow them to test and research UAS systems here in the U.S. Commercial UAS aircraft cannot be characterized as a hobbyist aircraft even if that is what you intend on flying it for.  It is therefore always subject to FAA commercial regulation.

Who can legally acquire and use UAS?

Public agencies (federal, state, county, municipal) and educational institutions (universities) are allowed to operate UAS under very specific sets of conditions.  This does not mean a public entity can do whatever they want with UAS.  The FAA must approve an application called a Certificate of Authorization (COA) for use of a specific UAS for a specific application, at a specific location, by a specific person.  

The COA application process is comprehensive. Each application is personally reviewed by the FAA with safety being the primary—but certainly not the only—criteria for acceptance.  In some cases, a licensed pilot may be required to be the operator of the UAS.  A different location, aircraft, or operator may not be substituted without re-approval/re-submission of the COA.

Regarding private land surveyors, the complicated series of manned aircraft regulations and the various FAA policy statements on UAS can be summarized as: No private entity (land surveyor) may use any type of UAS (RC or autonomous) for any type of geospatial data acquisition (photos, lidar, etc.).

That statement uses the term “acquisition,” which suggests that even gathering geospatial data by a geospatial professional is prohibited.  Whether or not the data or its resulting products are sold is irrelevant. 

Of course, the assumption here is that land surveyors do not want to purchase a UAS system for chasing their dog around the back yard, taking photos of their kids from the air, or other hobbyist activities using the strictest definition of the word “hobbyist.”   The temptation for many people would be to cross the hobbyist line into the professional line.  While many people would see this as an issue of semantics, a gray area, or a technicality, the FAA does not.

What’s the big deal with using UAS in U.S. airspace?

Our National Airspace System is a complex combination of geographically based areas designed to protect aircraft and people in the air and on the ground.  Additionally, pilots of manned aircraft have specific responsibilities in each of these airspaces.  Flying UAS in some of these airspaces creates a serious hazard to other aircraft and to people on the ground.  There have been multiple incidents of UAS being flown in proximity of congested airspace causing passenger aircraft to be diverted and creating a serious hazard.  There have also been multiple incidents of UAS equipment failure and crashing.  There are at least two known cases when people were injured requiring hospitalization.  
Figure 1 is a diagram of the U.S. airspace system.  This simplistic illustration does not represent the actual geographic coverage that is different at every location.

Figure 2 is a diagram of the U.S. airspace system when applied to a particular area, in this case Denver. This type of map is called an aeronautical “sectional.” The blue and magenta circles represent floors and ceilings for the airspace around Denver International Airport depicted by the runways in the center of the map. Try to visualize something similar to an upside down wedding cake around the airport.  This is Class B airspace.

Figure 3 is the sectional map of Minneapolis/St. Paul airspace, which is also Class B. The red circles indicate temporarily restricted airspace (TFR) because of VIP movement.  No aircraft that hasn’t been approved in advance is allowed within this three-mile radius from the surface to 3000’ for February 19-20, 2014. TFRs can be issued for a variety of reasons, including important persons, sporting events, and natural disasters.  The FAA makes examples of pilots who violate TFRs.

These examples illustrate some (but not all) of the complexities of our national airspace system. There are many other elements, such as airways, Military Operation Areas (MOA), and approach and departure procedures that UAS operators need to be aware of.

What will I need to do to operate UAS for commercial use once the FAA has integrated UAS into the National Airspace System?

The FAA anticipates completing UAS integration into our National Airspace System in September 2015.  While the details are not yet defined, the FAA Roadmap indicates that some type of operator training and certification may be required.  This may be based on the size of the aircraft and the type of airspace that it will be used in, and it could entail a new type of pilot’s license specifically for UAS.  

If UAS training and certification follows the current pilot’s license training program, there will be an FAA-approved study curriculum covering regulations, airspace, air traffic control, etc. followed by an FAA written exam.  There will most likely be a required practical exam by an FAA examiner proving that the operator can safely operate their specific UAS system.

These study programs and exams will not be easy, and many people will not pass.  The current private pilot dropout rate is about 80%.  A lot of that is due to the cost of instruction and flying a real airplane.  While these new requirements are not formal yet, they are indicated as likely to happen.

What can I do now to get ready?

Learning as much as you can about general aviation rules will be important. Understanding the principles of flight, airspace, air traffic control, and even weather will most likely be some of the topics of study required for UAS certification by the FAA.  Learn more about airworthiness certifications, as there will most likely be a requirement for those in the coming rules. There are FAA certified “ground school” programs used by private pilots studying for their written exam that are worthwhile for UAS operators.  These range from printed materials to interactive online programs.

What about a UAS training school?

The current non-military UAS training programs are not regulated by the FAA, do not have a standardized curriculum, have no standing with the FAA, and offer no guarantees that their training will count towards any future FAA UAS certification.  Most of these programs are little more than learning to fly an RC plane.  In fact, most UAS curriculum is based on the AMA model aircraft guidelines.  While any exposure to aviation is beneficial, spending a week and $3,500 for an unregulated, uncertified program is of questionable value.

Potential and Prudence

All of this leaves the private geospatial community (and all other private entities) in a holding pattern with regard to UAS and the massive potential that might be only a few years away. But remember, when the rules are settled, it will not be a free-for-all.  While other countries have adopted UAS into their airspace and are often pointed to as examples of “if they can do it, why can’t we?” the United States has a more complicated and more utilized airspace system than any other nation.  

Any surveyor who has used a robotic total station or RTK system understands the problems with radio links and battery life.  Throw in a motor and apply those situations to a more than 10lb aircraft flying at 60mph over a populated area, and think about the potential liability for a surveying firm involved in a UAS crash.

In the last three years, there have been 36 UAS crashes in the United States.  Most of these have been military UAS systems on training exercises in military areas; however, a few have been in populated areas by private operators, and several of these incidents have resulted in injuries to people on the ground.

UAS safety is the FAA’s priority. Safety should also be the priority of any UAS operator.  While surveyors are keenly aware of safety concerns and measures on an earthbound job site or road right-of-way, the level and type of safety, which are commonplace in the aviation industry, may be foreign to the average surveyor or geospatial practitioner. 

While the promise of UAS for geospatial professionals seems limitless, the future reality will likely have limits. Those limits will certainly be externally imposed by the FAA but may also be internally imposed depending on your organizational risk level.

In the meantime, if UAS is an interest, you can educate yourself on the technology and the other previously mentioned subjects in anticipation of the UAS regulation structure.

•       FAA Federal Aviation Regulations (F.A.R) – 2014
•       FAA UAS Integration Roadmap – 2013
•       FAA Advisory Circular 91-57 -1981
•       FAA Federal Register Notice [4910-13] -2007
•       FAA Interim Operational Approval Guidance 08-01  – 2008
•       FAA Unmanned Aircraft Systems Q & A 
•       FAA Busting Myths About the FAA and Unmanned Aircraft – 2014 

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