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July 8, 2011
EIJ Interview: Les Dorr, FAA Spokesman

Integrating UASs into the National Airspace System

EIJ: How many Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs) currently are licensed to operate in U.S. national airspace on any given day?

Dorr: None—we provide a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA), not a license.  As of June 18, there are 249 active COAs, which are issued for flight outside of active restricted and warning areas.

EIJ: How many COA applications currently are pending?

Dorr: As of June 18, there are 188 in process. This includes renewals of current COAs.

EIJ: What is the average time to process an application, from submission to the granting of a COA?

Dorr: Most renewals are normally processed in 30 business days. New applications are normally processed in 60 business days. Some complex missions may take longer.

EIJ: What is the difference between a COA and a Special Airworthiness Certificate—Experimental category?

Dorr: We use the Special Airworthiness Certification process (Experimental) to allow access to the National Airspace System (NAS) for civil operation of UASs and Optionally Piloted Aircraft (OPA).  In no case may any UAS or OPA be operated in the NAS for civil purposes unless there’s an appropriate and valid airworthiness certificate issued for that UAS or OPA. This also requires U.S. registration. Currently, we issue the certificate only for the purposes of research and development, crew training and market survey.

A COA is an authorization issued by the Air Traffic Organization to a public operator for a specific unmanned aircraft 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 unmanned aircraft can operate safely with other airspace users.

EIJ: What’s the size range of current operational UASs?

Dorr: UASs are currently operating from less than a pound to an aircraft with gross weight in excess of 22,000 pounds, with a wing span of 130 feet and a length of 47 feet.

EIJ: What types of unmanned aircraft does the FAA use in its testing process and what types of tests are conducted?

Dorr: The FAA UAS laboratory has a cooperative agreement with some UAS manufacturers.  They have provided a small, medium and large UAS simulator. In addition, the FAA has access to a medium UAS for flight testing; this testing is limited to an active restricted area.

To better understand the effects unmanned aircraft have on the airport environment, the FAA is conducting a Class D simulation and modeling effort at the FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center located in Atlantic City, N.J. This effort will capture all phases of flight within Class D airspace. This includes taxi, takeoff, landing, visual flight rules, closed pattern work and operations within Class D airspace but away from the runway environment.

The study’s purpose is to document and understand the effects of a UAS on the airspace, the air traffic control system and manned aircraft. The study also will document baseline safety data for mixing manned and

unmanned aircraft in Class D airspace.  The safety data is a crucial piece to successful UAS NAS integration.

EIJ: Has testing yielded any significant surprises—positive and/or negative—that were unforeseen prior to testing?

Dorr: The research and development to date, as well as real-life experiences, supports the idea that UASs are different from manned aircraft, and as such do require consideration of those differences. An example would be the system response expectations for operating within the NAS. With manned aircraft the expectation is that the pilot will respond to any situation with a timely and correct response. For a UAS, expectations must be established and defined so what we call the “boxes” supplant the pilot, who has now moved to a remote off-aircraft location.

Additionally, we’re working with standards organizations and conducting research and development to establish what these acceptable performance measures should be.

EIJ: What are some examples of progress
being made in communication, command and control of unmanned aircraft?

Dorr: In one of the FAA’s CRADA efforts, a Shadow UAS conducted a flight demonstration using the GE Flight Management System (FMS) to fly a four-dimensional trajectory, a future concept for the next-generation NAS. The FMS was a certified FMS used with manned commercial aircraft. The results of this effort gave insight on how a UAS could be controlled and flown in a manner more consistent with manned flight and in a next-generation environment.

EIJ: Where are we in terms of the technology required for unmanned aircraft to automatically sense and avoid other aircraft?

Dorr: The task of defining and proving technology for such a critical aspect of flight is immense. In comparison, traffic alert and collision avoidance systems—a very focused technology with a well-defined function—required many years to define requirements and build systems that could be accepted in the NAS and around the world.

Sense and Avoid (SAA) for a UAS is a much more significant challenge and potentially much more costly to address. The effort is in the beginning stages and will require more resources, greater focus and time. The good news is that when this is completed it will impact not only UASs but all of aviation.

EIJ: Will the FAA monitor UAS flights similarly to how it currently monitors piloted aircraft?

Dorr: Yes, unmanned aircraft are still aircraft, and they’re flown by pilots.

EIJ: What are the top areas in terms of civil applications in which you see the most potential growth in UASs in the next five years?

Dorr: UASs hold tremendous promise in their own right as well as for their impact on manned aviation. UAS integration is similar to the impact the jet engine once had. Specifically they hold tremendous potential for scientific research in remote areas, border patrol, firefighting, disaster relief and search and rescue.

EIJ: What are some of the most interesting applications for which you’ve issued COAs?

Dorr: We’ve issued disaster relief COAs for Haitian relief (January/February 2010), the Gulf of Mexico oil spill (June 2010) and this year’s Red River flooding in North Dakota (April-June 2011). We’ve issued emergency COAs for the Japanese earthquake/tsunami (March 2011) and the Red River flooding, as well as to numerous law enforcement agencies.

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