Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) are one of the fastest-growing segments of the National Airspace System (NAS). There are over 1.2 million drones registered in the United States and that number is projected to grow to over 7 million by 2020. The FAA is working diligently to safely integrate UAS into the NAS and NATCA supports that position.
The task of integration is full of challenges, including the fact that the majority of the aviation rules in existence were written for manned aircraft. Trying to adapt these rules for UAS is a bit like putting a square peg into a round hole. Therefore, the FAA has undertaken significant rulemaking efforts for UAS. The Small UAS rule, which created Part 107 and codified hobbyist rules in Part 101e in 2016, was a big step forward.
The creation of the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification (LAANC) system was another major step toward integration. Part 107 operators are required to receive authorization to operate in Class B, C, D, and E surface area airspace. The manual process of approving these authorizations was taking weeks due to the volume of requests being received. To solve this problem, the Agency created and developed LAANC, a public/private partnership between the FAA and industry UAS Service Supplies (USS). LAANC enables UAS operators to receive an authorization in a matter of seconds versus the weeks it was taking under the manual process. LAANC is fully implemented nationwide at all FAA facilities and the Agency has already processed over 26,000 requests this year, surpassing all of the authorizations granted manually in 2017. NATCA worked with the FAA from the beginning in developing and deploying this successful technology.
Earlier this year, the administration announced the Presidential UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP). The IPP allowed city, county, state, and tribal governments to submit their ideas for UAS integration in their communities. Ten sites were chosen from around the country to test UAS concepts such as night operations, beyond visual line of site (BVLOS) operations, and operations over people. These concepts will be applied to use cases like agriculture inspection, utility inspection, defibrillator delivery, package delivery, border protection, mosquito eradication, and on-airport aircraft inspections. The early test cases are primarily flying below 400’ AGL and in Class G airspace. However, as the concepts of operation for the participants develop, the likelihood of operations in controlled airspace increases. NATCA is working closely with the Agency on these exciting projects.
In other successful integration news, Syracuse ATCT (SYR) continues to be on the UAS integration cutting edge. For over two years, SYR has successfully integrated MQ9 Reaper aircraft from the New York Air National Guard into their manned traffic pattern.
Additionally, NASA recently flew an MQ9 Reaper aircraft, with on-board Detect-And-Avoid (DAA) equipment, through ZLA, ZOA, JCF, and VCV airspace, proving that large UAS can successfully operate in the NAS using on-board DAA equipment.
These are among many exciting things happening in UAS integration. Full UAS integration is still out on the horizon, but great strides are being made toward that goal. It won’t be long before seeing a drone delivering your pizza or inspecting utility lines near your home will be a reality. And with that reality comes an increase in the complexity and volume within the NAS. NATCA remains committed to a safe and growing NAS and we will continue to work with the Agency toward that important goal.