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The Golden Age of Unmanned Flight

It was a time when air races and record setting flights filled the news with larger than life characters such as Howard Hughes capturing the headlines. After World War I America fell in love with the airplane and the excitement of traveling through air and visiting exotic locations. Wealthy travelers and adventurous pilots began filling the skies.

This was a time when our national airspace system was in its infancy and the government was discovering how to safely allow airplanes access to the skies above our country. Decades later and through much trial and error our nation has the safest and most technologically advanced airspace in the world and as Americans we expect this to continue.

Similar to the planes returning from World War I we have unmanned aircraft returning to the United States after being successfully used in the military. It was exciting to see how these aircraft are being used by the military. We now have become accustomed to reading about these unmanned flying machines performing missions with little or no loss of life to our troops.

We are now entering the golden age of unmanned flight as we watch TV and read newspapers describing these flying machines. Much like the Golden Years In Aviation of the 20’s and 30’s we look upon pictures of these flying machines with amazement as we wonder how this will change our lives and impact our safety.

On March 9, 2012 The FAA Issued a Notice of Proposed Rule making to identify six test ranges/sites to integrate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System (NAS). This is the largest step forward in the future integration of Unmanned Aircraft into the National Airspace System.

What is an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS)

The unmanned aircraft, associated support equipment, control station, data links, telemetry, communications and navigation equipment, necessary to operate the unmanned aircraft comprise what is defined as the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS). The FAA issues an experimental airworthiness certificate for the entire system, not just the flying portion of the system.

A UAS can vary in size and capabilities ranging from the size of a 737 flying at high altitude to a device weighing only a few ounces flying from room to room in your house. This brings up many challenges to the certification and usage rules for UAS’s.

Radio Controlled Model Airplanes

Many hobbyists enjoy flying radio controlled model airplanes that are by the definition above a UAS. This may be true but those model aircraft are restricted to fly below 400 feet above the ground and must be kept a sufficient distance from populated areas and full scale aircraft, and may not be used for business purposes.

The new proposed rules will not change the use of these model aircraft. FAA Advisory Circular 91-57 addresses recreational use of the National Airspace System.


The number one priority of the FAA, pilots, air traffic controllers, and all those who use the National Airspace System is Safety. The traveling public and all those who use the National Airspace System deserve the highest level of safety. The introduction of Unmanned Aircraft Systems will not and should not compromise the safe and efficient use of our airspace.

See and Avoid becomes Sense and Avoid

Pilots must at all times see and avoid other aircraft. Since there is no pilot, the UAS must “sense and avoid” other aircraft. Although there has been much success by the military in sensing and avoiding other aircraft, our National Airspace System does not accept collateral damage afforded a wartime aircraft.

The UAS is normally designed to use onboard cameras and radar to sense and avoid other aircraft. The unmanned aircraft by law must now be accompanied by another aircraft for this reason or stay within a distance observable by someone on the ground.

Communicate, Command, and Control

The UAS must also be in constant communication with a land based system or in the future be able to communicate autonomously. The UAS must also be able to be remain under control and be commanded to operate by ground based facilities or by other means if the system of communications fail.

The ability to control the aircraft from the ground must be standardized and the security of those on the ground must be enhanced. We have secured cockpit doors to prevent unwanted persons from controlling the aircraft while in the air. A similar system must be put into place for ground controllable aircraft.

Where We Are Going

Currently Unmanned Aircraft Systems have had access to our National Airspace System through the use of experimental aircraft and certificates of waiver and operation issued by the FAA. These have been issued to Public organizations such as Customs and Border Patrol and State Universities.

Further study of Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the National Airspace System is necessary for the eventual use by civilian organizations. We are in the infancy of Unmanned Aircraft Systems in numbers of hours flown and safety as is evidenced by accident statistics.

The Customs and Border Patrol(CBP) between 2006 and July 13, 2010 has had only 5,688 flight hours. Standard Safety Data is reported based on accidents per 100,000 hours flown. If we strictly look at the numbers, the CBP has had an accident rate of 52.7 per 100,000 hours flown.

This is more than seven times the rate for general aviation accidents which is 7.11 per 100,00 hours flown, and 353 times the commercial aviation accident rate of 0.149 per 100,000 hours flown. As we gain more experience the rate for UAS accidents should drop precipitously.

The FAA mandated by congress is moving towards increasing the speed with which we discover how Unmanned Aircraft Systems will work in the National Airspace System. To do this the FAA has announced a proposed rule to allow for six new tests sites for evaluation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems and they are asking for public comment through May 8, 2012.

Entering The Golden Age Of Unmanned Flight

The vision of colorful aviators whisking passengers through the sky in the ever evolving and record setting world of the Golden Age Of Flight has given way to engineers with pocket protectors. We are on the precipice of unmanned aerial flight and the Golden Age Of Unmanned Flight has arrived. Where we will go from here is exciting and full of challenges, but one thing is for sure. The United States is taking an active role and leading the field in research and development of Unmanned Aircraft Systems usage in a National Airspace System.

If this introduction to Unmanned Aircraft Systems has peaked your interest, look for future places and dates of my presentation “Unmanned Aircraft Systems : A Pilot’s Guide”. Clear Skies and Safe Flying!


For More Information:


FAA Unmanned Aircraft Systems Website


{ 4 comments… add one }
  • James David April 23, 2012, 4:14 pm

    Unmanned Aircraft System is really helpful specially in military. They can use this planes to attack the enemies without risking the lives of many soldiers. All they need to have is a land base contact and everything will work smoothly. This is good but the question is, would it be possible that the next innovation in aviation are flights that’s no longer needing the service of pilots? I’m just thinking. Thanks for this article, it really made my brain think.

    James David teaches people how to buy single engine airplanes & has a passion for the Cessna 150

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