What UAVs Can Learn From Manned Aircraft

The basis for future UAV regulation is today’s rules for manned aircraft

Interest in small, non-military Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) is growing, and knowledge of manned aircraft operations is essential to the success of this new community. Yes, manned aircraft operations. Why is this important, you ask? Manned aircraft pilots and unmanned aircraft pilots are both considered pilots, in my mind, as both share the same airspace and must be able to operate together in a safe manner. Further, future US government regulations for UAVs will likely be derivatives of today’s manned aircraft regulations.

I’ve been a manned aircraft pilot for over 25 years and have worked in both the tech and aviation industries. UAVs lie at the intersection of these industries and this article is meant for tech people who want to know more about the aviation world. I believe that people in the technology industry can benefit from understanding the slow-moving pace of manned aircraft innovation in order to find opportunities in the fast-moving tech startup world. Next time you’re in an airliner at night in bad weather, consider that a methodical regulatory environment might not be a bad thing.

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the government agency charged with regulating the operation of all air vehicles. The people, equipment, and facilities to do this are collectively known as the National Airspace System (NAS). There are about 50,000 flights each day in the US. Over 14,500 air traffic controllers are needed to make this happen. While there are over 15,000 airports in the US, commercial airliners serve only about 500 airports. That leaves a lot of airports with manned aircraft traffic that fly low and slow including helicopters, powered parachutes, and gliders.

Although the FAA is mandated by congress to integrate UAVs into the NAS by 2015, it will be many years before this is fully accomplished across a broad range of unmanned aircraft types and uses. To understand why, it is important to understand the system as it exists today for manned aircraft.

The sky is filled with many types of aircraft including military, general aviation (small piston aircraft and business jets), and airliners. Each of these aircraft has to follow very detailed regulations that are determined by the aircraft’s weight, intent of use, location and current weather conditions. These regulations currently govern manned aircraft and, since the FAA won’t stray far from what it has known for decades, these will also be the basis for unmanned aircraft regulations. I believe that by understanding these current manned-aircraft regulations you’ll be better prepared to understand the FAA UAV regulations due in the future.

Weather Conditions

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.

IFR flight in good weather, but will have to descend down through the clouds.

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 commercial operations, and Part 121 covers scheduled commercial operations.

The Pilatus PC-12 is one of many aircraft used for both personal use and commercial use.

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 and the type of equipment required on-board. 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 FAA treats large and small aircraft very differently

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.