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Research Questions

  1. What regulations, systems, or procedures could decrease the undesirable outcomes of increased sUAS traffic?
  2. What challenges might increased sUAS traffic pose to the existing air traffic control (ATC) system?
  3. What roles could be played by the FAA, operators, and manufacturers in the future?

There were more than 550,000 small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS) registered in the first nine months of 2016. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Aerospace Forecast estimates that there will be between 2.75 million and 4.47 million aircraft flown by hobbyists and between 0.24 million and 1.62 million aircraft flown commercially by 2021. The accompanying growth in air traffic could produce undesirable outcomes, such as an increase in bystander injuries or deaths as a result of aircraft crashes. Regulations, systems, and procedures could reduce the risk caused by additional sUAS operations below an acceptable threshold.

In this Perspective, we consider potential regulations for sUAS design, including aircraft certification requirements, and more-novel and more-flexible risk-based standards. We also consider the unique challenges of air traffic control for sUAS traffic and describe roles that could be played by the FAA and sUAS operators and manufacturers in the future, particularly with regard to the safety and efficiency of sUAS operations.

Key Findings

Regulation and Testing of sUAS Designs

  • There are several options available when it comes to certifying or regulating sUAS designs, but the federal government and the aviation community do not yet have the results needed to set airworthiness standards.
  • Data of interest will include quantitative estimates of the probabilities of specific sUAS components failing in different ways, and of the resulting risk to people and property.
  • Testing should allow analysts to estimate the damage that would be done to people and objects on the ground when aircraft crash.
  • A risk-based system for sUAS design could focus more directly on areas of concern, such as harm to people and damage to property, particularly infrastructure.

Traffic Monitoring and Management

  • Much of the current sUAS traffic operates in uncontrolled airspace, in areas where other types of air traffic do not operate, and in unpopulated areas. Although this traffic is not currently managed in any formal way, operators are interested in reducing risk by using systems to track and control this traffic.
  • It is clear that if the current ATC system or a system modeled on the ATC system were used to manage sUAS traffic, the cost would likely be quite high and technical challenges would limit sUAS traffic density.
  • The federal government is working with industry to develop UAS traffic management (UTM) systems. Stakeholders believe that there will be opportunities to apply research results from UTM work to improve the conventional ATC system.

Recommendations

  • As the skies become more crowded, action is needed from the federal government and sUAS manufacturers and operators to ensure the public's safety. Such action can also spur development in the sUAS space, in much the same way that federal government action promoted civil aviation in its infancy.
  • Given the diversity of uses for sUAS technologies, we recommend a tiered system when it comes to certification; the sUAS designs that meet the highest standards would be granted the most access (e.g., would be able to fly above urban areas).
  • Certification standards could be defined in terms of risk rather than in terms of specific equipment requirements. Risk-based standards appear promising, in part because of their flexibility. Further research is needed to identify a defensible and transparent methodology for estimating risk as a function of sUAS design.
  • The current system for control of conventional aircraft is expensive and depends on human system monitoring and tactical-level control. Using a similar system to manage sUAS traffic may not be feasible. Instead, systems for managing sUAS traffic should be more flexible, more automated, and focus more on the observation and strategic management of traffic flows than the system currently used to manage conventional aircraft.
  • Further development and regulation of sUAS traffic management systems is needed before these aircraft should be allowed to fly over populated areas, higher-altitude airspace, or in areas where conflict with other forms of air traffic is possible.

This project is a RAND Venture. Funding for this venture was provided by philanthropic contributions from RAND supporters and income from operations. The research was conducted by the RAND Science, Technology, and Policy program of RAND Justice, Infrastructure, and Environment.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation perspective series. RAND perspectives present informed perspective on a timely topic that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND perspectives undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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