Unmanned Aircraft Operations in Domestic Airspace Congressional Research Service

Bart Elias
2016 unpublished
Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), often referred to as "drones," have become commonplace over the past few years. As UAS technology develops rapidly, the United States faces significant challenges in balancing safety requirements, privacy concerns, and economic interests. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA; P.L. 112-95) required the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to develop and implement a comprehensive plan to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace and
more » ... e regulations governing the operation of small unmanned aircraft used for commercial purposes. FAA has proposed regulations allowing routine operations of small commercial UAS weighing less than 55 pounds, but is still developing the guidelines and standards for federal, state, and local government agencies required by FMRA. Hundreds of thousands of small UAS are already being operated as recreational model aircraft and hobby drones that are permitted under a special rule for model aircraft established by FMRA. In addition, several hundred public agencies and more than 3,000 businesses have been granted approval to operate UAS on a case-by-case basis. Once regulations and guidelines are put in place, large growth in UAS operations is anticipated. As UAS operations have increased, a number of safety concerns have emerged, particularly with regard to use of model aircraft and hobby drones. UAS flights have interfered with airline crews near busy airports and with aircraft fighting wildfires, and have posed safety and security hazards at outdoor events and in restricted areas. FAA has been addressing these concerns through user education initiatives and in limited cases by using its enforcement authority to sanction unauthorized and unsafe operations. In an effort to better monitor UAS operations and carry out enforcement actions as appropriate, FAA now requires that commercial and recreational UAS operators register all small UAS weighing between 250 grams and 55 pounds. Technology known as "geo-fencing" may play a future role in keeping UAS away from airports and other restricted airspace by overriding operator inputs and keeping UAS out of these areas. UAS could potentially be used by criminals and terrorists for espionage and smuggling, or as a platform to launch a remote attack. To address both safety and security concerns, a number of technology solutions are being examined to detect airborne UAS and pinpoint the location of the operator. Technologies to disable, jam, take control over, or potentially destroy a small UAS are also being developed and tested. Many of the commercial applications envisioned for UAS, such as express package delivery, remote monitoring of utilities and infrastructure, and imagery collection and analysis to support precision agriculture, most likely will not be viable without development of technological capabilities that allow for the complete integration of UAS in the national airspace. These include technologies to enable drones to sense and avoid other air traffic; manage low-altitude airspace and detect and prevent unauthorized use of airspace; mitigate risks to persons and property on the ground; provide secure command and control linkages between drone aircraft and their operators; and enable automated operations. There are also issues related to operator training and operator qualification standards. A number of bills introduced in the 114 th Congress address UAS safety, and these topics may be considered in further detail in forthcoming FAA reauthorization debate.