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Virginia Tech test site helped advance new rules for unmanned aircraft

April 18, 2016

Drone contrail
New rules issued by the Federal Aviation Administration double the ceiling for certain unmanned aircraft flights.

Unmanned aircraft researchers with the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership say new Federal Aviation Administration rules that allow certain unmanned aircraft operators to fly at altitudes up to 400 feet — twice as high as they could before —  without requesting additional, specific authorization are an important step toward building the unmanned aircraft systems industry.

This new “blanket” nationwide certificate of authorization, or COA, permits some aircraft operators, including commercial operators who hold what’s called a Section 333 exemption, to fly unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, under 400 feet anywhere in the country, except in restricted airspace like that in major cities or near airports.

The previous blanket authorization allowed such flights only up to 200 feet.

“Doubling the altitude of a camera used for aerial surveying work doubles the amount of land covered by each flight, making the flights more efficient and cost effective,” said Mark Blanks, the associate director for the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership in Virginia and the director of the Virginia Tech test site. “This is a critical enabler for success of unmanned aircraft in commercial operations.”

The test sites run by the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership have executed hundreds of research flights at altitudes of 400 feet and beyond, and conducted extensive testing to ensure that flights at those altitudes can be carried out safely.

“This new COA is a direct result of work that the test sites did,” said Rose Mooney, the executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, which is headquartered at the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science at Virginia Tech and oversees test sites for unmanned aircraft systems in Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey.

“The operations we have conducted in our three states — the high pace, the partnering, and the complexity — have demonstrated both the demand and the ability to operate safely, efficiently and effectively,” said Matt Scassero, the associate director for the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership in Maryland and the director of the University of Maryland’s test site.  

“Keeping in mind their risk management approach, these characteristics helped enable the Federal Aviation Administration to make this decision and authorize increased operations,” he said.

“This is exactly what Congress envisioned that our role would be, and it also shows the value of the test sites,” added Mooney. “We are able to test these kinds of scenarios so that they can roll out for broader use.”

For unmanned aircraft operators, a major benefit of the higher ceiling will be an expanded field of view. Many of the potential applications for unmanned aircraft systems utilize sensors that allow the aircraft to collect data for everything from agriculture to infrastructure inspection to search-and-rescue operations. Flying at higher altitudes allows those sensors to see much farther.

Of course, operators must still obey a number of restrictions, including registering the aircraft, making sure the pilots have proper certification, and staying within the visual line of sight of a pilot and away from airports and heliports.

Nevertheless, the Federal Aviation Administration expects that the updated rule will reduce the need for new COA applications by 30 percent to 40 percent.

“This is another milestone in our effort to change the traditional speed of government,” Federal Aviation Administration administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement. “Expanding the authorized airspace for these operations means government and industry can carry out unmanned aircraft missions more quickly and with less red tape.”

Virginia is one of the ten states with the largest number of commercial operators covered under the new rule, so the loosened restriction could have a significant impact in the Commonwealth.

The Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership was chosen by the Federal Aviation Administration in December 2013 to be one of only six national test sites for unmanned aircraft systems.

The partnership has flown more than 1500 missions in the last year alone — more than any other test site — and pioneered applications for unmanned aircraft systems in search-and-rescue, emergency response, journalism, and health care. 

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