DoD Envisions “Routine” UAS Access to US Airspace

02.13.12 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The Department of Defense currently seeks expanded access to U.S. airspace for its unmanned aerial systems (UASs), and it anticipates the routine use of military UAS in the National Airspace System (NAS) as a long-term goal, according to a 25 year roadmap for UAS development.

“The number of UAS in the DoD inventory is growing rapidly.  The increase in numbers, as well as the expanding roles of UAS, has created a strong demand for access to national and international airspace and has quickly exceeded the current airspace available for military operations,” according to DoD’s Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, FY2011-2036, dated October 2011.

“The [desired] end state is routine NAS access comparable to manned aircraft for all DoD UAS,” the DoD Roadmap said.  “DoD’s immediate focus is gaining near-term mission-critical access while simultaneously working toward far-term routine NAS access.”

“Current UAS are built to different specifications for different purposes; therefore, showing individually that each system is safe for flight in the NAS can be complicated, time consuming, and costly,” the Roadmap stated.  “Routine access cannot happen until DoD and FAA agree to an acceptable level of safety for UAS, and the appropriate standards are developed to meet that threshold.”

Under current procedures, the Federal Aviation Administration permits a small number of DoD UAS flights outside of restricted military areas.  But the present FAA certification process “does not provide the level of airspace access necessary to accomplish the wide range of DoD UAS missions at current and projected operational tempos.  This constraint will only be exacerbated as combat operations in Southwest Asia wind down and systems are returned to U.S. locations.”

In the newly enacted FAA authorization act and the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress mandated “accelerated” integration of UASs into U.S. airspace.  (“Congress Calls for Accelerated Use of Drones in U.S.,” Secrecy News, February 3;  “Drones Over U.S. Get OK by Congress” by Shaun Waterman, Washington Times, February 7;  “Among Liberties Advocates, Outrage Over Expanded Use of Drones” by Channing Joseph, New York Times The Lede, February 7.)

“Over the next 15 years more than 23,000 UAS jobs could be created in the U.S. as the result of UAS integration into the NAS,” according to a 2010 report by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a UAS industry advocacy group. “These new jobs will include positions in industry, academia, federal government agencies and the civilian/commercial UAS end-user community.”