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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  • Money changing hands increases liability, just think of the other professionals with certificates, bonded and insured folks who repair your house. Would you want some hack to come over and wreck your house? If you didn't know it already it seems to be the way that commercial uas operators will have to have a private pilots license and then also a uas certification. This is so you screw up your license and right to make money will be in jeopardy plain and simple more regulated control. FPV operators will need an FPV endorsement or rating, but you won't be able to get one of those without the private pilots license... I don't agree, but just a heads up folks the regs are coming hard and fast. If you are making $$$ from these prepare for inspections, insurance, licenses, ratings, compliance and the rest, if you didn't think it would go this way I am sorry.

  • That's a lot of more likelies and most likelies there Greg.  What about regulating operation based on the airspace, location or potential proximity to uninvolved third parties?  What about regulating based on the size and complexity of the aircraft?

    I still fail to see how money changing hands influences the safety case in anything more than a superficial way.

  • I think the idea of a commercial license is mainly for safety. If you are flying commercially it is more likely you will be flying in areas you are not familiar with. Therefore having the ability to read an air chart and determine the class of airspace is more important. Training in the procedures of communicating with air traffic control to get permission to fly in the restricted areas makes everyone's life easier. This could be a simple filing a flight plan with flight services. Also if you are flying commercially most likely you will be flying larger and more complex aircraft so a maintenance procedure are more important. Preflight becomes more important, but here most likely you will be doing this because watching your aircraft fall out of the air with someones Red attached just isn't good for the nerves.

  • Moderator

    I think I was trying to say human factors may be more important than airframe reliability. The platforms will have to be able to stop their owners putting them into dumb situations. CRM courses for all!

    When money is on the table the thought making process can be seriously compromised. 

  •  Sometimes folks make dumb decisions when trying to make a buck. On the other hand some can be more sensible when they realise poor decisions could bust their business

    so, basically no dumber or less dumb than non-commercial ops then... ;)

  • Moderator

    @Andrew I think commercial pressure carries some weight. Sometimes folks make dumb decisions when trying to make a buck. On the other hand some can be more sensible when they realise poor decisions could bust their business. Not being onboard does make the operator less risk averse along with low cost of entry.

    Personally I think if we saw more positive use stories, folks helping local conservation projects and schools then we might start getting more positive mind share. Sadly its gee whiz fireworks and the beach is cool. 

    The FAA is intent on starting all UAS ops at once and that's an issue. Other countries started small and are working up.

    If you were in the UK all that yellow would be considered a congested area and require a separate permission to fly in it. Its a very simple way of knowing if you can fly in an area or not. I am sure mission planner will look more like that chart within a year or two.

  • Hi Chris, I have linked directly to this Blog article from my Drones Are Fun Web Sites Social and legal issues page here:


  • An interesting treatise, but I think the commerical/non-commercial dichotomy is a false one for UAV's.  It makes sense for manned flight because people who do not fully understand the risks of flight can and do pay and climb aboard.  

    With unmanned aircraft (until they become passenger carrying...) this is not the case, so whether it is commercial or non-commercial plays a limited-to-nil factor in the safety case.

  • This is a practical analysis of the situation with a sound parallel between manned and unmanned LOS versus non-LOS operations or VFR versus IFR.

    And I agree that LOS  operations should be much simpler to accomplish with far fewer barriers than autonomous operations.

    However, FPV is rather a different kettle of fish, clearly here, assuming your vehicle is operating within safe parameters and your FPV and radio links are satisfactory for flight it seems to me that a simplified more VFR like rule set could be made for qualified FPV flight as well and this is important to us.

    Full autonomous flights in populated areas are bound to be expensive to certify even if they stay below the 400 foot ceiling.

    Failures will inevitably result in uncontrolled crashes in unknown places.

    Over unpopulated areas however below 400 feet the danger is much less and certification and licensing could be simpler, easier and cheaper.

    I also think that size and potential crash threat assessment should be taken into account in deciding the amount of regulation necessary.

    A Hubsan X4 sized quadcopter or a "foamy" just do not represent much realistic danger to anybody under any circumstances.

    We need to have a size or weight cutoff where the FAA just bows out.

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