Unmanned aircraft operation in the National Airspace (NAS) fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Public entities (local, state and federal agencies) have to apply for a Certificate of Authorization (COA); civil entities require a Special Airworthiness Certificate (SAC). The COA provides guidelines for operator qualifications, airworthiness, aircraft maintenance, flying altitudes, communication with air traffic control, visual line of sight, and visual observer requirements.
Current regulations limit UAS flights to visual line of sight, even though many UAS are capable of operating autonomously for several hours and at large distances to the ground station. These regulations impose result in limitations for the size of area that can be mapped and in additional crew training costs. Personnel have to be trained in the safe operation of the UAS and have to fulfill requirements for private pilot ground school and/or private pilot licensing, and FAA medical certification. UAS regulations are subject to continuous review and are updated as required. The FAA maintains a website with the latest UAS regulations and policies at https://www.faa.gov/about/initiatives/uas/cert/.
Operating a UAS under a COA The Jornada Experimental Range UAS is trained in all UAS operations and fulfills the FAA requirements for operating a UAS in the NAS. Two of our team members hold private pilot licenses. According to regulations, our missions are conducted within visual range of the UAS, which means a limit of about ½ mile horizontal distance at our flying height of 700 ft above ground.
We work closely with New Mexico State University’s UAS Flight test center, which has a COA for southern New Mexico. At the Jornada Experimental Range field station, we operate under this COA. We also obtained a COA for a remote sensing mission at the USDA ARS Reynolds Creek Experimental Watershed site in southwestern Idaho, where we flew the UAS over three sites and acquired over 800 images. Because portions of the JER field station are located in restricted airspace, we also operate the UAS in military airspace controlled by the adjacent White Sands Missile Range.