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Standards for Unmanned Aircraft

Government Operator Perspective

by Gary A. Dehnel

According to U.S. law, prior to any aircraft operating in U.S. airspace, three aviation-related disciplines must be satisfactorily addressed to ensure aviation safety. Those disciplines are: 1) flight rules, 2) aircraft airworthiness, and 3) operator qualifications.

Flight Rules — The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s General Operating and Flight Rules govern the operation of aircraft within the United States. The flight rules cover topics such as responsibility and authority of the pilot, operating rules for various classes of airspace, rules for flying in good or poor weather conditions, and equipment required to be on the aircraft.

Aircraft Airworthiness — Aircraft airworthiness consists of three basic parts. First the aircraft must be designed with safety in mind. The FAA reviews and approves the aircraft design — which results in an FAA document called a Type Certificate. Subsequently, the aircraft must be manufactured according to its Type Certificate. And lastly, once the aircraft is in operation, the airworthiness certification must be maintained through proscribed maintenance, configuration control of the aircraft, and approval for subsequent updates to the initial certification for modifications to the aircraft. All of these activities are carefully monitored and controlled by the FAA.

Operator Qualifications — The FAA licenses pilots for various levels of operation — private flying, commercial flying, instrument weather flying, and airline flying. To attain these various levels of licensing, pilots are trained and tested under FAA guidance and monitoring. Once pilots obtain their licenses, they must periodically accomplish various activities to maintain “currency” in order to be a safe pilot. If currency lapses, the FAA has directives as to what is necessary to regain currency.

All private and commercial operators must abide by the multitude of FAA regulations associated with these three disciplines. However, when an aircraft is operated by the federal government, the picture becomes somewhat muddied. The government operates aircraft in three modes: commercial, public, and state.

Government Operations: Public and Commercial — “Public aircraft operations” refers to instances in which an aircraft is used exclusively in the service of any government or political subdivision thereof, including the governments of federal, state, and U.S. territories. However, a government-owned aircraft engaged in carrying persons or property for commercial purposes is not considered a public aircraft operation. For example, an aircraft used to conduct state or federal law enforcement operations is considered a public operation. However, using that same aircraft to fly a governor or government executives from one meeting to another is considered a commercial operation. A government aircraft operated commercially must abide by all FAA regulations associated with the disciplines of flight rules, aircraft airworthiness, and operator qualifications. However, operations of public aircraft are generally exempt from compliance with Federal Aviation Regulations. Thus, when the aircraft is operated as a public aircraft, its operations (i.e., the above three disciplines) are now governed by that government’s policies and procedures. Public aircraft operations are encouraged to comply with Federal Aviation Regulations, even when they are not required to do so. They and the flying public benefit from their voluntary adherence to the safety standards set out in the regulations. In most cases, for simplicity and safety, government entities flying public aircraft operations choose to abide by all the FAA’s regulations.

Government Operations: State — The third type of government aircraft operations is that of “state aircraft.” The International Civil Aviation Organization Chicago Convention of 1944, of which the U.S. is a signatory, states that the convention shall be applicable to civil aircraft and shall not be applicable to state aircraft. Aircraft used in military, customs and police services are deemed to be state aircraft. State operated aircraft are exempt from convention and FAA regulations. As such, the airworthiness and operator qualifications of state aircraft may be “self-certified” by the governing body (e.g., the military, including Coast Guard and U.S. Customs). At times, state aircraft may hold an FAA airworthiness certificate, but that is not required. The same goes for pilots; they may hold FAA licenses, but that too is not required. However, state aircraft operations must be prudent in their operations and the concept of “equivalent level of safety” applies.

Of note, the above description of government aircraft operations applies only to those operations within U.S. airspace. The situation becomes quite multifaceted when a government aircraft, operating in the public or state mode, operates outside the jurisdiction of the FAA. That topic is beyond the scope of this article.

Application of UAV Standards to Government Operations

So how does all this relate to the government operations of unmanned air vehicles? Since government UAVs will not likely be carrying passengers or property, we can expect that government UAV operations will fall into either the public or state mode. To date, all U.S. UAV operations have been “state aircraft” (mostly military) operations. Much of the time, those UAVs have operated in restricted airspace where civil and commercial aircraft access is strictly controlled. When state UAVs are operated outside of restricted airspace, an FAA Certificate of Authorization, or COA, must be attained. The COA applicant must describe how the UAV operations will achieve an equivalent level of safety for the three aviation disciplines described at the start of this article. COAs are not conducive to routine operations of file-and-fly. They are granted on a case-by-case basis and can take up to 60 days to process.

As one would expect, government organizations are looking into UAVs to fly dull, dirty, and dangerous aviation operations more economically than manned aircraft. If those operations are deemed public or state operations, which seems to be the case, then airworthiness and operator qualifications could fall into the self certification arena. But on what does that governmental organization base its equivalent level of safety for flight rules, airworthiness, and operator qualifications?

For manned aircraft operations, those governing organizations look to the FAA for guidance. However, except for COAs, the FAA has no regulations or guidance for UAV operations. Imagine if, 100 years ago, the Wright brothers were to look for an FAA to certify their new flying machine, license their pilots, and give them direction as to flight rules. Of course, there was no FAA. The UAV industry faces a similar situation for aircraft certification, operator qualifications, and flight rules — these disciplines are not there yet for UAVs. But, with the assistance of consensus-based civil standards developed by ASTM International’s Committee F38 on Unmanned Air Vehicle Systems, we can help the FAA and potentially the International Civil Aviation Organization establish their regulations and guidance. //

Copyright 2003, ASTM

Gary A. Dehnel is a retired U.S. Coast Guard aviator. He is a senior aviation analyst with SYColeman, a subsidiary of L-3 Communications, and serves as membership secretary for ASTM Committee F38 on Unmanned Air Vehicle Systems. For the past five years Dehnel has been assisting the U.S. Coast Guard Deepwater Aviation acquisition program in re-capitalizing the Coast Guard’s aviation fleet.