Unmanned Aircraft in the National Airspace System

I. History of Aviation – Unde Vinimus

UAS technology, manned aviation regulation, and the NAS developed concurrently in a triple helix. Marching to the drums of war and subsequent airline industry dollars, the aviation regulatory landscape has accommodated the evolution of U.S. aviation to this point. To identify the landscape around us, it helps to recognize the course we travelled to reach this point. This section discusses the three development strands that led us to this point in history.

 A. Unmanned Aviation

UAS are on the rise in military operations, with unmanned aircraft likely to exceed manned platforms in military operations by the middle of the decade.4 If history is any indicator, this technology will follow en masse in the civilian marketplace within the decade.5 The most advanced UAS of today are as complex as their manned counterparts, and developed alongside manned aviation from before the wing.6

i. Early Unmanned Efforts: from Tethered Flight to World War I

Prior to manned fixed-wing flight, balloons and kites hinted at the possible applications of UAS technology. In February 1863, Charles Perley applied to patent the first unmanned aerial bomber. The patent described a balloon basket with a timer and fuse mechanism, intended to eject explosives after a prescribed period of time. Both Confederate and Union troops attempted to use the Perley bomber with little success.

About the same time, English inventor Douglas Archibald took the first successful aerial photographs from a large kite. By 1898, American troops were capturing surveillance photographs from kites equipped with a long shutter control attached with a string. The aircraft as surveillance platform was born with the remote click of Archibald’s shutter.


4 U.S. Unmanned Aerial Systems, Jeremiah Gertler, Specialist in Military Aviation, Congressional Research Service, January 3, 2012.

5 Drones in Domestic Surveillance Operations: Fourth Amendment Implications and Legislative Responses, Richard M . Thompson II, Legislative Attorney, Congressional Research Service, September 6, 2012.

6 For the purposes of this paper, UAS refer to medium and high altitude, complex UAS, specifically excluding small UAS, such as the Raven and similar small platforms.