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Who’s Behind UAS?

A Look at Drone Support, Programs, and Initiatives in the FAA

By Jennifer Caron

It was a cold, but quiet day in April. I was carefully running a pre-flight on my Kitfox two-seater, when suddenly an intense, whirring hum pierced the air — like a swarm of angry bees freshly disturbed from their nest. A small, X-shaped aircraft appeared on the horizon. Its furiously spinning fans propelled it ever forward. It was quick and agile, like a Hornet jet fighter, as it swept across my aircraft and crash-landed near me. When I bent down to carefully examine the now silent, alien object, my suspicions were confirmed — it was a DRONE!

Join me as I explore how to address this incident, and help introduce you to all the many drone support mechanisms, programs, and initiatives in the FAA that exist for the benefit of operators, and the public.

Who You Gonna Call?

Did you know that sightings of drones near or around airports and other aircraft now exceed 100 reports per month? In 2016, there were approximately 1,800 reports of drone sightings, compared to 1,200 reports in 2015. If you see a drone, officially known as an unmanned aircraft system (UAS), operated in an unsafe manner, call local law enforcement immediately. State and local law enforcement agencies are often in the best position to deter, detect, and immediately investigate unauthorized or unsafe UAS operations.

LEAP Into Action

After I contacted my local police department to report the drone, law enforcement arrived on scene. As it turns out, the operator never showed up to claim the drone. I was convinced that he, or she, could not be found. However, I was happy to learn that my local law enforcement officials can coordinate with local FAA field offices to address these safety issues. See the article, “Drone Dragnet” in the May/June 2017 issue of FAA Safety Briefing for more details.

The officer on scene inspected the registration number on the drone, and contacted the local FAA Law Enforcement Assistance Program (LEAP) special agent to verify the registration, which in turn led to the operator’s identification.

Own the Drone

In December 2015, the FAA collaborated with industry stakeholders to develop a registration process for small UAS. An Agency-wide effort, that included policy offices in Flight Standards and multiple support organizations like the Office of Information & Technology, developed the registration process for UAS.

Aircraft registration provides a means to associate an unmanned aircraft weighing more than 0.55 pounds, with its owner. It ensures that operators know that they are responsible for the safe operation of their aircraft. To date, over 750,000 small UAS owners have registered, including more than 40,000 in the last two weeks of December 2016.

Operate Safely

Thanks to the registration process, the operator in my drone incident was located. From there, the local LEAP agent coordinated with the local FAA field office, known as a Flight Standards District Office (FSDO), to assign an aviation safety inspector (ASI). ASIs are experts on aviation regulations and safety standards, and take the lead on investigating UAS accidents or occurrences, other aviation safety issues, or any complaints reported to the FSDO.

In this case, the actions of the drone operator were not intentional. Unaware that an airport was within five miles, she failed to notify the airport operator and traffic control tower. She didn’t realize she was doing anything wrong.

If there’s no accident or deliberate violation of a regulation, then the FAA uses compliance actions with the UAS operator to address the safety concerns. The ASI worked to educate the drone operator on how to safely operate UAS in the National Airspace System (NAS), including instructions to avoid flight near manned aircraft, and to always fly within visual line-of-sight.

“You must always fly your UAS safely,” says Jeff Riff, Aviation Safety Inspector in the FAA’s Flight Standards District Office in Houston, Texas. “Even though the UAS is piloted from the ground, any incident that occurs is handled in the same way it would be handled for a manned aircraft, with a pilot on board,” Riff explains.

Drone Rules

Growing concern about reports of UAS flying near airports and manned aircraft highlighted the need to educate users about how to operate UAS safely, and as soon as possible, preferably before they began operating small UAS in the NAS.

Building on the successful launch of the online registration system, the FAA adopted a similar approach of engagement and collaboration with industry stakeholders in the development of 14 CFR part 107, the set of operating rules for small UAS.

Part 107, developed and regulated by the FAA, and the General Aviation and Commercial Division, provides basic rules for operators and achieves two goals. First, part 107 minimizes the risks to other aircraft, and people and property on the ground; and second, the rule provides the UAS industry, and operator community with the flexibility to innovate, since UAS technology is evolving at a rapid pace.

Drone Knowledge

Part 107 introduces the Remote Pilot Certificate, specific for UAS operations. An individual can obtain a certificate by passing an aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved testing center, or those with a current, non-student part 61 airman certificate may complete an online UAS training course in lieu of the knowledge test. Approximately 24,000 applicants have taken the Remote Pilot Knowledge Exam, and over 91% have passed.

The FAA is actively engaging in public education and outreach efforts to further enhance user knowledge. Outreach campaigns such as “Know Before You Fly,” and the B4UFly mobile app promote the safe operation of UAS. B4UFLY ( is an easy-to-use smartphone app that helps UAS operators determine whether there are any restrictions or requirements in effect at the location where they want to fly.

The FAA’s Safety Team (FAASTeam) promotes UAS safe operations and members serve as a key link to the public, providing education on flight safety, participating in UAS industry meetings, and serving as resources at drone enthusiast groups and aircraft hobby clubs. The FAASTeam is the FAA focal point for UAS, and General Aviation safety outreach and education.

Drone Waivers and Authorizations

Part 107 also allows operators to apply online for waivers to specific sections of the rule and for authorizations to fly in controlled airspace. The FAA has issued over 2,200 airspace authorizations since publication of the rule. Waivers can be issued provided the operator demonstrates in their application that their proposed operations may be conducted safely. The General Aviation and Commercial Division has issued over 400 waivers for small UAS operations under part 107, including the pre-recorded drone light show featured during halftime at the 2017 Super Bowl.

Efforts such as this expansion of permissible UAS operations would not be possible without the UAS policy and support offices throughout the Agency, whose dedicated staff and resources support these activities.

UAS Teamwork

The UAS Oversight and Compliance Focus Team (OCFT) serves as a crucial link between the field and FAA policy offices. It provides a single point of contact for field personnel, providing advice and support for the clear and consistent implementation of policy. It also collects feedback and input from the field to advise policy offices on guidance improvements. Members of the OCFT have extensive UAS experience, are well versed in operational safety, and provide UAS regulatory and technical expertise.

“In a nutshell, the OCFT’s job is to make sure that the field ASIs, and FAA policy offices, are in harmony,” explains Al Brunner, Aviation Safety Inspector, and the lead for the OCFT.

“For example, if the field needs support to interpret or apply a UAS policy, the OCFT will clarify it and ensure the policy is consistently applied throughout the field. Or, if
the policy has gaps or problems and is not serving the public as it should, the OCFT will step in and inform the policy offices on how best to adjust the policy where needed,” says Brunner.

The FSDOs and the OCFT members were on hand as resources for the public who, in most cases, just got a new UAS and wanted to know how to fly it safely and legally. “We made sure that every FSDO across the United States received 100-percent of our support, and that they knew how to implement the new part 107 rule for UAS commercial use,” said Brunner.

UAS Integration

Serving as a focal point for external stakeholders, the FAA’s UAS Integration Office is also a connecting point among the FAA offices working UAS issues. It streamlines the UAS community’s interaction with the FAA, and it provides UAS stakeholder input to the FAA policy offices. It also collaborates with offices FAA-wide to develop strategies for enabling UAS operations and integrating UAS into the NAS.

The UAS Integration Office gathers input from many groups such as UAS manufacturers, UAS industry and trade associations, UAS technical organizations, academic institutions, and research and development centers. The Office collaborates with federal government security agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense.

“Federal, state, and local entities are all engaged, and we cannot solve these challenges alone. The expertise and collaboration of industry stakeholders is key for the safe integration of UAS into the NAS,” explains Emanuel Cruz, Management and Program Analyst in the FAA’s UAS Integration Office.

The UAS Integration Office also supports external stakeholders by supporting industry in forums and events. For example, it has supported events with the National Association of Realtors and the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, among others, to provide information on how these industries can conduct operations safely within the current regulatory framework.

UAS Test Sites and Research

The FAA is also supporting its UAS test sites in conducting critical research. Research and development activities include flight tests, modeling and simulation, technology evaluations, risk assessments, and data gathering and analysis.

These activities provide the FAA with critical information in areas such as Detect and Avoid, UAS Communications, Human Factors, System Safety, and Certification, all of which enable the Agency to make informed decisions on safe UAS integration.

To keep pace with the rapid increase in the number of UAS operations, and to pave the way for the full implementation of beyond visual line-of-sight operations, the FAA is working with NASA and industry to develop a UAS Traffic Management System. See the article, “How Do We All Get Along,” in this issue for more on this initiative.

Research under the Focus Area Pathfinder Program explores extended visual line-of-sight operations for increased usage of UAS in agriculture crop monitoring in rural areas.

Another Pathfinder Program explores beyond visual line-of-sight operations, in rural or isolated areas, and the “see and avoid” challenges presented in the use of UAS for rail system infrastructure inspections.

Programs, Partnerships, and Initiatives

The FAA also continues to work closely with industry partners on several programs, partnerships, and initiatives. For example, the FAA partners with organizations like the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). The AMA promotes the development of model aviation, and AUVSI is devoted to advancing the UAS and robotics community.

The FAA partnered with AMA and AUVSI to establish “Know Before You Fly,” an educational campaign to inform UAS users how to fly safely and responsibly. Working with these two groups, the FAA developed the B4UFly mobile app, mentioned earlier in this article. Input from these partnerships prompted the FAA to include key features in the app, such as interactive airspace maps to enhance the UAS operator’s situational awareness.

In March 2017, the FAA and AUVSI hosted the annual FAA UAS Symposium. This gathering provided stakeholders the opportunity to meet with government and UAS industry representatives to discuss the intersection of privacy and preemption, harmonizing international regulations, and the array of new safety and security risks associated with increased UAS operations. A resource center provided attendees with one-on-one technical support on authorizations, waivers, and part 107 requirements.

Drone Advisory Committee

The FAA is taking the same partnership approach with the creation of the Drone Advisory Committee (DAC). Comprised of a mix of CEO/COO level leaders from key unmanned aircraft and manned aviation stakeholders, including the RTCA, Inc., and chaired by Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, the DAC helps to create broad support for an overall UAS integration strategy and vision. Members represent the wide variety of UAS interests, including industry, research, academia, retail, and technology.

The first DAC meeting was held in September 2016, and its members have already started to work on assisting the FAA in two key areas: identifying the roles and responsibilities of those operators, manufacturers, and federal, state, and local officials related to drone use in populated areas; and determining what the highest-priority UAS operations are and how to enable airspace access to conduct these operations.

Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team

Continuing the partnership with government and industry, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta announced the creation of the Unmanned Aircraft Safety Team (UAST) at the White House Drone Day this past August. The group, which includes a wide variety of stakeholders from the drone and aviation industries, as well as government, will use UAS operational data to identify safety risks, and then develop and voluntarily implement mitigation strategies to address those risks.

“The UAST is based on the very successful Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) and General Aviation Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC),” explains Derek Hufty, Management and Program Analyst in the UAS Integration Office, and FAA member of the UAST. CAST and the GAJSC recommendations from both groups have significantly improved traditional aviation safety. The FAA expects the UAST will do the same for UAS.

Moving Forward

The drone industry offers limitless possibilities for jobs and new business opportunities, and drones are captivating people around the world. As the FAA moves forward with UAS integration into the NAS, it continues to involve all stakeholders in framing challenges, prioritizing activities, and developing solutions.

Almost every policy and support office within the Agency serves as a resource to learn how, and where, to operate this new technology safely, and legally, for the benefit of operators of all aircraft — manned and unmanned.

Learn More

Check out the UAS tools and study materials on the FAA website at

Participate in many of the FAA Safety Team’s online safety courses and seminars at

Find your local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) at

Visit the FAA’s UAS Programs at

Jennifer Caron is an assistant editor for FAA Safety Briefing. She is a certified technical writer-editor, and is currently pursuing a Sport Pilot Certificate.

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