The use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) has grown rapidly in the last decade and promises to grow even more rapidly in the future. Unmanned aircraft offer new ways of increased efficiency, reduced costs, enhanced safety, and providing life saving activities.
‍For an overview of UASs, watch this video (MITRE, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hBcugTsWRQ).

At this time in the UAS evolution, government is the largest UAS operator and is driving the requirements, which the UAS industry follows. As was the case with powered aircraft, the first practical uses of the aircraft were military, and the fledgling aircraft industry followed the lead of the army in developing aircraft for war. However, in the post war era, other civil applications for aircraft became vogue and the industry quickly followed. One might expect to see the same cycle in the 21st century, and indeed, the nature of the UAS manufacturing industry follows the military aircraft manufacturers to some extent. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon are all strong producers of UASs, which are, after all, miniaturized versions of larger military aircraft. However, there are a large number of smaller, specialized firms that are involved with UAS manufacturing in the United States. The leading UAS provider remains General Atomics, makers of the Predator and Sky Warrior. Other insurgent firms, such as AeroVironment, one of the leading small UAS manufacturers from the U.S., is expanding rapidly. Other US industry players include AAI Corporation and Sierra Nevada, although the list of US suppliers tops 100 in length.

Currently many government agencies are studying the application of UAS operation in the National Airspace System (NAS). For example, NASA has a UAS in the NAS project that envisions performance-based access to all segments of the NAS for all classes of UAS. Of the many issues being investigated in this project, is the criticality of secure communications with the UAS such that it is not vulnerable to cyber attack or UAS hijack from hostile forces (see the section in this wiki on Cyber security). NASA’s goals for UAS communications are to develop and validate candidate secure safety-critical command and control system/subsystem test equipment for UAS, and to perform analysis to support recommendations for integration of safety-critical command and control systems and air traffic control communications to ensure safe and efficient operation of UAS in the NAS.

Cox et al., (2004) in their NASA report indicate that the notion of using UASs, in one form or another, has been around since World War I. However, the US did not begin experimenting seriously with unmanned reconnaissance drones until the late 1950s. For military purposes, the idea of being able to carry out spy missions or deliver munitions on targets behind enemy lines without harm to a pilot has been an intriguing benefit to military developers. The military events in the Middle East since the 1990s have renewed the interest levels in UASs. The performance by vehicles such as Predator and Global Hawk has also stimulated interest in UASs for civil usage.

In fact, largely due to the Middle East events during the last decade, UAS development has increased to the point where the number of requests made to the FAA to fly UAS in the NAS has increased over 900% since 2004 (DOD, 2010). As a result, the FAA adapted an existing regulatory waiver process to address the requests and to focus agency resources without compromising the safety of the NAS. Currently, federal public UAS operations conducted outside of Restricted and Warning Areas are approved through a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) from the FAA.

‍Clearly, creating a Warning Area, or any form of Special Use Airspace (SUA) along with the COA from the FAA represents a conservative bureaucratic approach to routine ‍UAS access in the NAS. Military applications as well as those of other government agencies have some natural priority within the government hierarchy; however, any demand from other public agencies, such as state and local governments, or any commercial applications, will fall short in the pecking order. The act of such a lowered priority will essentially stifle the growth of such applications and markets.

‍A synonym for UAS operation in the NAS in the 2030 time frame would be transparency. The UAS interacts with other UASs and manned aircraft as well as the air traffic management function as if the flight were manned. ‍The flight operator is responsible for multiple UAS flights, and manages these flight activities using automation tools that assist the operator with routine and mundane aspects of flight management. Of course, the UAS vehicle has the capability to fly autonomously, and responds to air traffic management commands automatically for certain classes of events; while, more severe incidents result in an exception being generated. The exception calls the flight operator into the loop, and in partnership with the automation, the flight operator resolves the exception situation. In this manner, a flight operator could oversee a fleet of UASs.


The future of UAS in the NAS lies with civil, public and commercial applications of UAS technology. Such applications include:

  • Meteorology & Scientific Research
    • Hurricane Monitoring
    • Cryospheric Research - Arctic and Antarctic
  • Civil Engineering
    • Bridge Inspection
    • Transmission Line Inspection
    • Pipeline Inspection
    • HAZMAT Inspection
    • Traffic Monitoring
    • Aerial Surveying
  • Epidemic Emergency Medical Supplies
  • Damage Assessment
    • Insurance Claim Monitoring
  • Precision Agricultural - Wildlife and Land Management
    • Coffee Harvest Optimization
    • Vigor Mapping and Frost Mitigation
    • Crop Disease Management
    • Corn Precision AG Studies
    • Herd Tracking and Management
    • Entomology
    • Forestry Inspection
    • Fisheries Management
    • Species Conservation
    • Wildlife Inventory
    • Mineral Exploration
    • Forest Fire Surveillance
    • Forest Fire Mapping
  • Environmental Monitoring
    • Volcano Monitoring
    • Oil Spill Tracking
    • Snow Pack Avalanche Monitoring
    • Ice Pack Monitoring
    • Gas Leak Detection
  • Homeland Security and DOJ enforcement
    • Terrorist Response
    • Border Patrol
    • Disaster Management
    • Port Inspection
    • NBC CBR Monitoring
    • SIGINT
    • Nuclear Facility Monitoring
    • Perimeter Surveillance
    • SWAT Operations
    • Hostage Negotiations
    • Search and Rescue

Other applications of UAS in the NAS include lighter than air unmanned vehicles. Inflatable aero structures including wings, tails and fuselage components have been present in aircraft applications since the 1950s. These components were derived from the lighter than air (LTA) airships and fabric-covered aircraft that preceded them by decades. Recent advances in materials have brought this technology to a new level of performance, enabling its application to modern unmanned aerial systems. The single greatest benefit of this technology is that it allows compact packaging of large vehicles. It makes possible the easy transport of a robust package that rapidly expands into a vehicle of greater size and performance than any mechanical competitor. One can envision carrying the UAS in the back of your SUV, stopping along the road, blowing it up with your helium pump and taking off for the clouds!

While the above applications represent comprehensive examples of public use of UAS in the NAS, they do not represent the largest potential civil usage for UAS. That usage is posed by the commercial transport industry for movement of cargo and eventually passengers. In this advanced information age,‍ time‍ is of the essence in commerce and industry. Just in time inventories and virtual manufacturing require rapid movement of cargo and goods from one producer to another user. Any industry or commercial operation is fair game. A transplant patient in New York urgently awaits a kidney from Philadelphia. Today, it is transported by special transport in a time frame of several hours. However, using a UAS from the rooftop of the sending hospital in Philadelphia to the receiving hospital in New York, take only 30 minutes to transport. Similarly for critical drug requirements, which can be manufactured and transported point to point as needed by UASs that can go from site to site without intermediate hubs or warehousing. Finally, add people to the mix, with a fleet of personal air vehicles that are parked in their garage, and transport them from the Pennsylvania suburbs of Washington, DC to downtown in 30 minutes instead of a three-hour trip by conventional automobile. Given the low altitude and traffic, autonomous UASs would be required to avoid the complications of having a highly skilled human operator at the controls for the transport. As Cistone (2004) implied, there is no alternative. Although we have been able to devise the teleportation of mail, a former staple of air cargo, teleportation technology is ‍not yet feasible, nor is it near term for other cargo material or human elements.
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