GEOG 892
Geospatial Applications of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS)

Current Status of FAA Guidelines on UAS


In this section, you will explore the current regulations that govern UAS operations and the efforts underway to integrate their operations into the National Airspace System (NAS). The status of UAS regulations can be considered in relation to two different eras. The first one preceded the provisions of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (P.L. 112-95), and the second is what we are currently dealing with after the 2012 provision. During both eras, the FAA regulations on operating a UAS in NAS were very strict and in fact prohibited civilians from flying UASs until Part 107 went into effect on August 29, 2016. In 2008, The Aviation Safety Unmanned Aircraft Program Office (UAPO) of the FAA issued the Interim Operational Approval Guidance 08-01. “Interim Operational Approval Guidance, Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operations in the U. S. National Airspace System” provided guidance to help determine if unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) should be allowed to conduct flight operations in the U. S. national airspace system (NAS). On July 30, 2013 the FAA issued a national policy (N 8900.227) for reviewing and evaluating the safety and interoperability of proposed Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) flight operations conducted within the United States (U.S.) National Airspace System (NAS) under the subject “Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Operational Approval.” The new national policy defined in details the methods of the UAS operational approval through the issuance of either a COA for public aircraft operations or a Special Airworthiness Certificate for civil operations. All guidelines and regulations are jointly developed by the following entities within the FAA:

  • the Unmanned Aircraft Program Office (UAPO), FAA Aircraft Certification Service (AIR-160)
  • the Production and Airworthiness Division, FAA Aircraft Certification Service (AIR-200)
  • the Flight Technologies and Procedures Division, FAA Flight Standards Service (AFS-400)
  • the FAA Air Traffic Organization’s Office of System Operations and Safety, (AJR-3)

Originally, the Certificate of Authorization, or COA, was limited to public agencies and no commercial agency was granted a COA. Even for public agencies, COA cannot be guaranteed, and COAs may take different lengths of time or have some restrictions built in, according to the FAA document N 8900.227, which states “because of the uniqueness of various UAS flight operations, each application must be evaluated on its own technical merits, including operational risk management (ORM) planning. Each application may require unique authorizations or limitations directly related to the specific needs or capabilities of the UAS and/or the proposed specific mission and operating location.”. However, during 2015, the FAA started issuing grants exemption for commercial entities to fly UAS for commercial use under strict limitations.  The FAA based such grant exemption on section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.  An exemption according to section 333, allows commercial companies to fly UAS, after they apply for COA, of course, for commercial use. Even with the heavy restrictions that surrounded these exemptions, the move was welcomed by companies who are planning to use UAS for various commercial tasks, and it was considered to be the baby step that they were waiting for.

The previous surprising move by the FAA was followed by three unprecedented moves.