Page 1 GAO-12-889T Unmanned Aircraft Systems
Chairman McCaul, Ranking Member Keating, and Members of theSubcommittee:I appreciate the opportunity to testify before you today on obstacles tounmanned aircraft systems (UAS) safe and routine operations in thenational airspace, the role that the Department of Homeland Security(DHS) has in UAS operations, and emerging UAS issues. Manystakeholders have exhibited increased interest in UAS for border securityand disaster assistance, among other uses. Additionally, as combatoperations in Afghanistan decrease, all of the United States militaryservices expect to conduct more UAS training flights across thecontiguous United States.
UAS aircraft do not carry a human operator on board, but instead operateon pre-programmed routes or by following commands from pilot-operatedground stations. These aircraft are also referred to as “unmanned aerialvehicles,” “remotely piloted aircraft,” “unmanned aircraft,” or “drones.” Theterm “unmanned aircraft system” is used to recognize that a UAS includesnot only the airframe, but also associated elements such as a groundstation and the communications links. UAS are typically described interms of weight, endurance, purpose of use, and altitude of operation.Most UAS are considered small, weighing less than 55 pounds; some of which fly less than 400 feet above the ground. According to an industryassociation, small UAS are expected to comprise the majority of UAS thatwill operate in the national airspace.The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorizes military and non-military (academic institutions; federal, state, and local governmentsincluding law enforcement entities; and private sector entities) UASoperations on a limited basis after conducting a case-by-case safetyreview. Only federal, state, and local government agencies can apply for a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA); private sector entities mustapply for special airworthiness certificates in the experimental category.
House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence,
Performance Audit of theDepartment of Defense Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance
(Washington, DC: Apr. 2012).
COAs and special airworthiness certifications in the experimental category representexceptions to the usual certification process. FAA examines the facts and circumstancesof a proposed UAS to ensure that the prospective operator has acceptably mitigatedsafety risks.