If Congress gets its way, by Sept. 30, 2015, unmanned aerial vehicles will be seamlessly flying in national airspace alongside passenger jets, military aircraft and single-prop general aviation Pipers.
That deadline, enshrined in the Federal Aviation Aciministration reauthorization bill passed Feb. 14, calls for the "full integration of [unmanned aerial systems] into the national airspace."
That is a little more than three years away.
Before that mandate can be met, there are technological hurdles that must be overcome, and hundreds of pages of rules and regulations that must be written, experts said. Ethical and legal issues also need to be in the mix, attorneys have pointed out.
"There are a lot of tough issues that need to be answered with regard to sense-and-avoid capabilities, maneuvering capabilities, licensing certification, manufacturing standards and certifications," said Sean Cassidy, national safety coordinator with the Airline Pilots Association of America.
"Having been around a lot a lot of the agencies in D.C. ... nothing is ever as easy as it looks," he added.
Along with the 2015 deadline, the act forces the FAA to take several other smaller steps. First, it must produce a comprehensive integration plan within nine months of the law's enactment.
It calls for small UAS, under 55 pounds, to fly in national airspace within 27 months, and at heights of no more than 2,000 feet over the Arctic within one year. It must allow police and other public safety agencies to fly mini-drones, weighing 4.4 pounds or less, for the purposes of "saving lives or increasing public safety," within 90 days.
Some of these requirements were already in the works. Officials from the FAA's unmanned aircraft program office said at an industry conference in August that they were aiming to complete the small UAS rulemaking process by mid-2013.
Meanwhile, the rules for public safety agencies flying mini-unmanned aircraft aren't too different from those of hobbyists, who are allowed to fly remote control planes up to 55 pounds, as long as they are within line of sight.
FAA Acting Administrator Michael 1 lerta said in a statement that the agency "has a proven track record of safely introducing new technology and aircraft into the NAS, and I am confident we will successfully meet the challenges posed by UAS technology."
Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, said the military has already undergone a UAV revolution...