Where the U.S. is Headed with UAV Integration into the National Airspace System

While unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other umanned aircraft systems (UAS) are flying the "unfriendly skies" over Afghanistan, they are not as yet integrated into the National Airspace System (NAS) in the United States. Permits are required and according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA):

In addition to recreational use of UAS by modelers, there are two acceptable means of operating UAS in the NAS outside of “restricted” airspace: Special Airworthiness Certificates in the Experimental Category (SAC-EC) and Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (COA).

But the bottom line is that you can't operate a UAS for purposes such as capturing remotely sensed data for geospatial applications without special permission by the FAA. A factsheet on FAA guidelines was published in July 2011 and is worth reviewing.

Why is this important now? The FAA is in the process of selecting test sites to establish guidelines by which UASs will be integrated into the NAS by 2015. The Department of Transportation has weighed in on the potential for civilan remote sensing applications:

“Unmanned aircraft can help us meet a number of challenges, from spotting wildfires to assessing natural disasters,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “But these test sites will help us ensure that our high safety standards are maintained as the use of these aircraft becomes more widespread.”

My take: Access to remotely sensed geospatial data has boomed and while there may be some impact to the commercial earth observing providers due to pending U.S. defense budget cuts, the opportunities for cheaper, and perhaps even more current imagery from UASs is close at hand. It is important to recognized where the geospatial community needs to participate:

  • Image sensor specifications and platforms
  • Open data access when UAS data is collected by civilian/public/government authorities
  • Application priorities (e.g. emergency response, etc.)

The wave of UAS data is about to hit the shores of the U.S. so let's be aware of where we can influence government policy.

[See also a recently held conference in Europe on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Geomatics]

Published Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

Written by Joe Francica

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