Unmanned Aircraft in the National Airspace System

Integrating any new technology into the NAS presents regulatory hurdles. Integrating an evolutionary leap like UAS presents regulatory challenges beyond the imagination of early administrators. Unlike previous leaps, UAS has a viable precedent in jet integration, from which our regulators and administrators learned critical lessons.2

America has consistently brought wartime advances home for commercial benefit. From the dawn of powered flight to Desert Storm, the drums of war have sounded the advance of flight technology. Likewise, from World War I to the Global War on Terror, technological advances in aviation have driven stateside aviation regulation. Unlike prior technological leaps, the unmanned revolution may find regulatory guidance firmly in place before the technology comes home en masse. Due in no small part to effective leadership in Washington and a sound regulatory framework well positioned to incorporate technological advance, a legislative roadmap likely will be in place before we insert unmanned technology into our extraordinarily complex and evolving airspace picture.3

The challenges of UAS integration into the NAS are myriad. The tools and precedents to overcome these challenges are available to regulators today. Proper and timely utilization of these tools and precedents is critical to the evolution of aviation and the future of our aerospace industry.
This paper describes the current and future regulatory landscape for UAS, and the tools available to regulators to bridge the gap. Part I focuses on the how we arrived at this point, starting with a history of unmanned aircraft, followed by the regulatory history of aviation and the NAS. Part II describes the current regulatory landscape and the integration tools available to administrators today. Part III analyzes the pertinent sections of the FAA Modernization Reform Act of 2012, and identifies hurdles to UAS integration.


2 Gary A. Michel, Manager, Airworthiness, Advanced Aircraft and Commercial Space Law Branch, Regulations Division, FAA Office of Chief Counsel, described UAS technology as “evolutionary.” While the technology arguably may be either, the rapid expansion of UAS is more accurately described as a revolutionary leap, akin to jet integration. Unmanned Aircraft: The New Frontier of Civil Aviation, panel discussion, American Bar Association Forum on Air & Space Law annual conference, New Orleans, LA, October 24, 2012.

3 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap FY2011-2036, Frank Kendall, Acting Undersecretary of Defense, U.S. Department of Defense, Reference Number 11-S-3616 (2011).