August 10, 2012
LAS VEGAS — The FAA is working to create two permanent areas of Arctic airspace for research and commercial flights by unmanned aircraft, as directed by Congress in February in the agency’s reauthorization bill.
“We have to create a type of airspace that does not fit any existing mold,” says Jim Williams, head of the FAA’s new unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) integration office.
Creating the two small Arctic UAS operational areas, one northern and one southern as directed by Congress, will require the FAA to coordinate with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as they will be in international airspace.
“The airspace in the law is all in international waters, where ICAO has jurisdiction,” Williams says. “We will have to go back to ICAO to resolve how to implement the airspace.”
But the benefits of flying unmanned aircraft over the Arctic will be “pretty enormous,” he says. Oil companies are building floating exploratory wells “that do not withstand icebergs, so they need to monitor the ocean around them, for which a UAS is perfect.”
Guarding the coast, fish spotting, tracking the movements of ocean mammals and monitoring seaways to see when they are open are among other roles seen for Arctic UAS.
To implement the congressional directive, the FAA has to create a new airspace type, over water and up to at least 2,000 ft. altitude; identify two permanent operating areas; and designate onshore and offshore launch locations and transit corridors for ingress and egress.
Williams says the FAA is looking at using existing restricted-category certification to air-vehicle approval and adapting Part 135 rules to allow commercial UAV operations in the Arctic areas. “We will approach ICAO, the Arctic coordinating authority, to get approval for the areas,” he says. The plan is to be completed by August 2013.