FAA Streamlines COAs for UAS Test Sites

By Emily Aasand | May 28, 2015

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has made it easier for the six U.S. unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) test sites to conduct research by giving them blanket Certificates of Authorizations, as the FAA refers to it, to fly public aircraft operations in the national airspace system at or below 200 feet. The FAA believes the changes will “provide more opportunities for research that may help the agency integrate UAS into the nation’s airspace more quickly and easily.”

The new COAs allow small UAS—those below 55 pounds—operated by test sites to fly up to 200 feet anywhere in the country except restricted airspace and areas close to airports and heliports. The new authorizations also let the test sites fly various types of UAS under a single COA, making it easier for them to conduct research missions, the FAA said.

“The FAA’s new app will help all UAS users, public, civil and recreational, to operate this technology safely and responsibly at all times,” said Brain Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems international. “This important tool will improve the safety of our airspace as the FAA works to finalize rules that will allow for broader commercial use of UAS technology in the U.S. We look forward to working with the FAA as it develops this app and encourage all operators to download and use it each and every time they fly.”

The FAA now permits people who hold a recreational or sport pilot certificate to conduct test site operations under the blanket COA. Previously, the agency required operators to hold at least a private pilot certificate.

The six UAS test sites are the first public operators to receive this type of blanket airspace access across the U.S. The sites may still fly outside the blanket COA parameters if they obtain separate COAs specific to the airspace requested.

“The FAA’s announcement is great news for the future of Nevada’s UAS Test Site efforts,” said Tom Wilczek, aerospace and defense industry specialist for the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development. “Nevada has been working diligently to get companies up and flying unmanned aircraft vehicles on our test sites, and the ability for us to implement public aircraft operations that fly under 200 feet and within safety rules mandated by the FAA will significantly speed up the ability to test our Nevada sites, and move this emerging industry into commercial flights.”

The FAA selected the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership at Virginia Tech in December 2013, as one of the six test programs to conduct research to integrate UAS into the nation’s airspace. Since then, MAAP has worked with UAS to aid emergency responders, survey energy pipeline infrastructure, study agricultural land and teach reporters to cover news. 

“This gives us a tremendous amount of flexibility to do research, search-and-rescue missions, and operations that advance the public good,” said Jon Greene, the acting associate director of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership and an associate director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science. “We will be able to respond just about anywhere outside of five miles of an airport to save a life, help with a swift-water rescue, or find a mission person.” 

These operational parameters for the test sites are similar to those the FAA implemented in recently for civil UAS operations authorized under a Section 333 exemption. In March, the FAA unveiled a change to its regulatory exemption and authorization system that it says will “bridge the gap between the past process, which evaluated every UAS operation individually,” with a new system designed for “future operations.”


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