Who Owns the Sky Part I: The FAA’s Drone Integration Plan

FAAWho owns the space 100 feet above the roof of your house? You’re not going to build your house that high – even if zoning ordinances allowed it- and the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t control any airspace below 700 feet so its just neutral territory, right?

Well, yes. For now.

But when the sky fills up with privately owned, commercial drones, all bets are off. Coca-Cola and McDonalds will be flying advertising drones through your neighborhood while municipally owned police drones patrol the mall and set extremely elaborate speed traps.

This is why commercial drones are technically illegal in the United States and the FAA is scrambling to regulate them. However, commercial UAVs are gaining in popularity so fast, by the time the FAA has weighed in on today’s drone related questions, there will be 365 new issues to consider.

But we have to start somewhere so, in November 2013, the FAA published its ironically named “Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System (NAS) Roadmap.” The text of the document, which is about as long and exciting as its title, outlines the FAA’s plan to shift from a policy of Accommodating Drones in the NAS, to one of Integrating them and, eventually, to one of Evolving policy.realestate_slideshow

You can read the roadmap in its entirety at the link above, or just check out the major bullet points from the first half of the report below:

  • As it currently stands, there is a crucial distinction outlined in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 that defines Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems  (sUAS) as “an unmanned aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds” that operates within the line of site of the flight crew and Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) “an unmanned aircraft and associated elements…that are required for the pilot-in-command to operate safely and efficiently in the national airspace system (NAS).” You don’t have to be Robin Thicke to see how blurred these lines are.
  • UAS are typically given access to airspace via a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) issued by the FAA/Air Traffic Organization.

– University of Alaska

– North Dakota Department of Commerce

– State of Nevada

– Griffiss International Airport

– Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi

– Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

  • The proposed civil and commercial applications for drones, as recognized by the roadmap, are: security awareness, disaster response, communications and broadcast, cargo transport, spectral analysis, critical infrastructure monitoring, and commercial photography.
  • There is a lot of rhetoric that suggests the FAA is looking at requiring each pilot-in-command (PIC) to become certified much the same way as airplane pilots are licensed.
  • One of the FAA’s biggest concerns is ensuring UAS doesn’t interfere with manned aircraft. UAS must provide an analogous operation to the manned aircraft concept of “Sense and Avoid.” In other words, the FAA wants to make sure your drone won’t crash into a 747.
  • For the near term (defined as the next 5 years) the FAA expects to maintain UAS segregation from mainstream air traffic.
  • No new classes or types of airspace are to be designated or created specifically for UAS.


In reading the document, one gets the sense that, now that the FAA has recognized the need for rules, they are playing the waiting game until they have some data to back up their policies. This is, of course, how government regulation should work but by the time these studies are conducted, analyzed, turned into a proposal and eventually passed into law, there will be a mountain of other issues for the FAA to decipher.

For example, a lot of the ongoing and proposed research pertains not to the drones themselves but rather to the people flying them. This makes sense because the FAA is trying to shoehorn UAS procedures and regulations to coincide with those that govern manned aerial vehicles.

The truth is, they are wading into unchartered territory. To say no new classes of airspace are going to be created to accommodate drones seems short-sighted. And saying “It is expected that controllers will handle UAS the same as manned aircraft” is just flat out naive.

In a lot of ways, ‘handling’ UAS has much more in common with getting behind the wheel of a self-driving cars than it does with flying an airplane.

The roadmap’s integration plan stipulates that “each pilot-in-command controls only one UAS” and “autonomous operations are not permitted.” While this should prevent the rise of Skynet (for now), the whole point of UAS is to eliminate the need for the physical presence of a human being as much as possible.

Every new software update to existing drones further eliminates the need for a human conductor. The technologies that control UAVs and self-driving cars with pinpoint accuracy are being developed today and will become reality in a few short years. If the FAA starts looking at how to regulate auto-pilot now, by the time these vehicles hit the mass market, the laws should be pretty well in place.

Continue to Who Owns the Sky Part II: The FAA’s Drone Integration Plan, Reloaded  >>>

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