3D Robotics

What UAVs can learn from manned aircraft

3689610804?profile=originalHere's a very interesting article on Medium from a Marc Ausman, a pilot, on what the lessons in FAA regulation of manned aircraft suggest about the right path for unmanned ones.  Excerpt:

There are regulations governing how a plane can be operated depending on the weather conditions. Good weather flyers follow simple regulations and inclement weather flyers follow more complex regulations. I believe there will be a similar parallel governing UAV flights within line of sight (simple) and beyond line of sight (complex).

A main tenant for manned aircraft is “see and avoid,” which means the pilot in command of the aircraft is responsible for separation from other aircraft in visual conditions. Aircraft can fly in the NAS under two different rules. Visual Flight Rules (VFR) and Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). Under VFR, the pilot does not have to talk to controllers and can fly (mostly) wherever he or she wants. Under IFR, the pilot is under “positive control” and must follow specific instructions from air traffic control (ATC). Even under IFR where the air traffic controllers use ground-based radar to separate aircraft, the pilot is still responsible for visual separation with other aircraft as able. All commercial and most business jet air traffic is flown under IFR for safety, and most small piston aircraft fly under VFR for simplicity.

Therefore, unmanned aircraft must have a method for separation from both VFR and IFR manned aircraft.

The first and easiest way to provide separation is visually by the UAV pilot. That is why, I believe, regulations governing line of sight (LOS) UAV operations will be implemented first.

The more challenging task is integration of UAVs that fly autonomously beyond line of sight (BLOS). A failure of the control system could cause serious harm to other aircraft or persons on the ground. Autonomous operations may be allowed under very controlled circumstances on a case-by-case basis within the next 10 years (my personal estimate), and complete regulations for autonomous UAV operations are years past that.

An agreed upon technology to provide separation between manned and autonomous unmanned aircraft is many years away as well. You might think that installing a new technology in all manned aircraft may be an easy or viable solution. Think again. The manned aircraft community is currently under legal mandate to install a new technology called ADS-B in all aircraft by 2020. The process took decades in spite of its obvious safety benefits. ADS-B is a system that broadcasts the aircraft’s GPS position, altitude, track and other information to surrounding aircraft and ground stations. Only time will tell if ADS-B is the magic bullet we’re all looking for. Mandating new equipment for manned aircraft is very unpopular because it adds to the cost of flying, and the political hurdles tend to be much larger than the technology hurdles.

In addition to separation issues, small UAVs will fly over populated areas and mix in with manned aircraft – the FAA’s primary concern is safety of people in the air and on the ground. Designing your systems and best practices with safety in mind will go a long way to building UAV acceptance in the NAS.

Rules governing VFR flight are much simpler than rules governing IFR flight. A basic pilot’s license allows you to fly VFR flights. Pilots must study and test for a special license to fly IFR flights. I believe that regulations for operating UAVs LOS will be relatively simple and straightforward, just like VFR rules are today. Regulations for operating BLOS can be likened to IFR flights today – much stricter operating regulations and a higher level of pilot proficiency is required. And much longer for the FAA to develop since the regulations are more involved and cover not only the pilot qualifications, but also the design of the UAV hardware, software and airframe.

Intended Use

The same actual manned aircraft is covered by different regulations depending on its intended use. The main distinction is whether the aircraft is used for commercial or personal-use purposes. The Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) Part 91 covers non-commercial operations of generally smaller aircraft. Part 135 covers non-scheduled 

We are seeing a basic version of this same distinction with small UAVs today. A multi-copter you use to take pictures of your house is legal, but once you charge money to take pictures for a realtor it becomes illegal. Note there is currently a lot of uncertainty about the commercial use of small UAVs because the law is unclear and subject of much legal debate. The FAA is under a lot of pressure to issue UAV regulations while at the same time it is facing legal challenges to its interpretation of the law. I won’t discuss the rapidly-changing state of UAV regulatory affairs in this write up – that is a separate and very fluid document.

Further, a pilot has to have a special license to fly manned commercial flights, over and above the basic pilot’s license. It is certainly reasonable to expect the FAA to hold commercial UAV pilots to a higher standard than recreational pilots. These higher standards could include formal practical and written tests. Even though commercial UAV pilots don’t carry passengers (yet), they are still bound to a higher standard for whatever work they do. Interestingly, the insurance industry often holds manned aircraft pilots to higher proficiency and experience standards than the FAA. Not many small UAVs are insured today, but as commercial operations grow, insurance requirements will become a driver of UAV operating procedures and pilot experience qualifications.

To make matters even more complex, each of these regulations has specific criteria for aircraft maintenance standards. As you might expect, an aircraft used for commercial purposes is subject to more stringent maintenance standards than a recreational-use aircraft.


Airspace (from the ground up to 60,000 feet) around the US is divided into sections, and each section has it own set of regulations. Airspace around busy airports, for example, is more restrictive than airspace in the middle of Montana. By “restrictive” I mean the need to get permission from ATC prior to entering the airspace. The current regulations and technology infrastructure assume there is a manned aircraft with a pilot who can talk on the radio and the ability for an air traffic controller to provide verbal instructions to the pilot. Regulations that govern airspace will likely be almost identical for both manned and unmanned aircraft. They have to be – it’s the same air.

Airspace around San Francisco

From a technology perspective all of the airspace boundaries are available in database format, so it is straightforward for a UAV to be aware of its virtual surroundings.

The future challenge will be the command and control infrastructure needed for UAVs to travel autonomously through the various airspaces. The simplest path forward is to travel in only the least restrictive type of airspace, where no permission is required. To be truly effective, a system must be in place that allows UAVs to fly in all airspace, especially the restrictive airspace over or near large urban areas.

It will take many years for the FAA and industry to figure out a command and control infrastructure for truly autonomous flight. In the meantime, interested parties can apply for individual waivers from the FAA on a case-by-case basis. Since each applicant is evaluated individually it is difficult for a startup to plan and clearly understand the FAA’s needs.


The FAA chose what appears to be an arbitrary number and decided that “small” UAVs include anything under 55 pounds. I anticipate that future UAV regulations for the smaller UAVs will be different than those for the larger UAVs, as that’s how its been done for manned aircraft for decades. Part 23 regulations govern the design of aircraft typically under 12,500 pounds and Part 25 regulations, which are more strict, apply to aircraft larger than that. It makes sense that more stringent regulations apply to larger aircraft as they can carry more people and have the potential to create more damage on the ground.

The manned aircraft industry and the FAA realized that the Part 23 regulations needed a “re-write” in order to improve safety and lower the cost to bring an aircraft to market. This is particularly true for smaller, recreational use aircraft. In a significant shift from normal policy, for the Part 23 re-write the FAA is willing to move from direct oversight to a system whereby manufacturers build towards an industry standard. Be aware, this process began in 2007 and completion is not expected until 2017. Hopefully, the FAA will build on this and implement UAV regulations that utilize industry standards.

Get Involved

Industry working groups and steering committees need more input from small UAV users and businesses. As the FAA moves forward with UAV regulations, be on the lookout for open comment periods where you can provide feedback to the FAA on proposed regulations.

Take the next step further. Sign up for private pilot ground school. Go to your local small airport (San Carlos or Palo Alto, but not SFO) and take a few introductory flying lessons. Ask you instructor to show you VFR charts and tell you about maintenance procedures. Go to AirVenture in Oshkosh next July. Doing any of these things will give you an appreciation for aviation and the rigor required to fly safely.


The use of small, recreational-use UAVs is growing rapidly. Ironically, the commercial UAV industry in the US has the potential to explode but only once FAA regulations are in place. Regulations for LOS operations are the most likely to be implemented first. Widespread autonomous operations are many years off.

It appears there are already many signs that the FAA will follow what it currently knows when developing future UAV regulations. The more you understand about manned aircraft regulations the better you’ll be able to predict what is coming for unmanned aircraft regulations.

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  • Rob:

    I forgot to mention that 49 of the US states are common law. As always dont worry about the facts.

  • Rob:

    We don't abide by your common laws here sorry, money transactions increase liability. 



    Common law refers the type of legal system present in a country, other types include civil and Shariah. It equate to England. Dont believe me, go read up the article on wiki about "Common law".


    All these damn foreigners giving legal advice lol.


    Yes, abolishment, free hospitals,freedom from guns like the rest of the western world is such a backward thing.

    You must be might proud of having gun detectors in your schools.

  • Gary McCray, I don't think FPV is as simple as that.  Aircraft move fast and are hard enough to see when you're a human sitting in a plane.  The resolution and field of view needed for a drone + FPV pilot to approximate the same degree of see-and-avoid that a human can is not practical with current or near-future technology, IMO.

    It seems prudent to exclude BLOS drones from airspace inhabited by regular aircraft until the capability exists for ATC to direct them.  This could be of the form of direct management by human ATC controllers, automated direction of BLOS drones using a subset of airspace, and even flight corridors set aside just for BLOS drones to let them get from place to place using designated routes that can then be avoided by regular (VFR and other) aircraft.  There is precedent for these "roads in the sky" in the form of Victor airways and IFR routes.

    I could imagine seeing rules that allow BLOS operation freely below some altitude, outside of populated areas, or at designated areas where collisions are unlikely to hurt anyone below ("BLOS airports"), and BLOS airways (free) or ATC control (fee?) to get BLOS drones routed through airspace where those airways don't exist.  No matter how it's approached, I agree that it's decades away.

  • Seriously Rob, is that the best you can do?  Go all ad-hom to make your point?

    Of course money transactions increase liability, but to third parties?  Come on, if this is your claim, then educate us dumb foreigners with some references and case law/tort law/common law examples to support it.

  • @Andrew are you a lawyer here in the US? We don't abide by your common laws here sorry, money transactions increase liability. All these damn foreigners giving legal advice lol.

  • The history of aviation regulation is written in blood: http://www.news.com.au/travel/travel-updates/plane-crashes-that-cha...


    What scares me about the article and the responses is that a lot of UAV operators / hobbyists don't realise they're committing aviation and the responsibilities that come with it.


    If you want to see the factors that influence commercial ops, look at the incident in Geraldton, Western Australia. The guy experienced interference during test flights, but pressed on anyway, presumably so as not to miss his filming opportunity. He lost control, and dropped his copter onto competitors.

  • Rob,

    Money changing hands doesn't change the liability to third parties, or parties that cannot be expected to understand and consent to the risks attached, which is what safety regulation is generally covering.

    We owe a common-law duty of care to our neighbor whether or not a commercial contract exists. In the case where a commercial contractor makes a cock-up of their contractual obligations, there can be obviously a civil claim for breach of contract, but the same duty of care principle stands on top of that.

    That commercial operators have public liability insurance is usually from a regulatory say-so, but I would argue, cynically some may say, that these provisions are put there by lawyers to keep them and their ilk in bread and dancing girls.  Without the quasi-unlimited pot of insurance money available (or similarly, a large estate), most damages claims won't see the other side of an initial consultation.

    Most of the general public use poverty and ignorance as their legal risk mitigation.

    As they say, follow the money...

  • @Gary

    Here is some History for you since we discovered, implemented and invented the whole process, take notes I think you will need them. Who is behind now? 

    FAA Video

  • I think this is a great analysis of what can and should happen within the National Airspace System.

    I think also though that there is no tenable solution for regulation that does not recognize private property up to some minimum altitude above ground level. I think we need to be very vocal about making a definition (even if it is counter to many peoples current understanding, and counter to what was stated in the article) that the National Airspace System should not be from the ground up. It should instead be from a navigable altitude up. 

    I mean, I can drive a lawnmower, a potentially very dangerous device, on private property in any manner I wish. I do not need a driver's license to that. If I were to drive it on a public road however, it would need to meet the vehicle safety standards of the road, and I'd need to be a licensed operator. 

    We don't federally control commercial lawn services operating their dangerous lawnmowing equipment on private property, that would be silly. Local cities or states may have some business regulations (licensing, insurance, bonding) if they are needed, and that sort of thing can and has been done on a case by case basis for hundreds of years now.

    I think many of the arguments, problems, and concerns that both the FAA and communities like ours have, legitimate on both sides, simply go away once we define that the local airspace is property. 

    Public parks would be free to say that no powered aircraft (fullsize, model aircraft, small drone, or whatever) are allowed in the public property airspace, same with public roads, public beaches, etc. If that is what the local community wants. Just as they already prohibit lawnmowers (or ATVs or dirt-bikes, etc) there, with good reason.

    Likewise, fly in somebody's property without permission, that seems just like trespassing. But also, fly in somebody's property with permission, do whatever you like.

    If operators are found to need regulation to sell their services safely, then regulate that service. If they need to use the navigable NAS, then they should meet the requirements of operating there, otherwise they simply stay out.

    Even airports would work well in this regime. Your manned aircraft should be in the navigable airspace before leaving airport property. If the airport property does not extend far enough, the adjoining private (or public) property should be giving permission to use their airspace. Airports are free to control the craft in their property (manned, drones or otherwise) and no conflicts occur.

    I may be wrong, or naive, or may be preaching to the choir. But I do think if there were one change we could get through that would make a ton of difference, recognition of low level airspace as property would be it.


  • Moderator

    I'm single pilot CPL and I still have to take CRM courses, oh wait yes thats something else America is behind on.

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